In conversation with artist Zak Ové about his show’s dedication to radical togetherness at Somerset House

If you step into the Somerset House galleries this summer you’ll feel something seismic going on. Get Up, Stand Up Now is a monumental show featuring 100 artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and designers whose work reflects 50 years of black creativity in Britain. A glorious cacophony of diverse works and archival materials speak to each other in rooms themed to resonate with the political, social and cultural alliances these artists have forged both locally and globally. From Windrush pioneers such as Armet Francis, Charlie Phillips and Vanley Burke 
through to art world giants Yinka Shonibare CBE, Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen CBE; and onto the new generation of voices including Grace Wales Bonner, Jenn Nkiru and Mowalola Ogunlesi, the exhibition’s energy, strength and power is palpable.

But for its curator, the acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Zak Ové, the incentive goes even deeper than that. Get Up, Stand Up Now is a fitting ode to his father, the Trinidadian photographer, filmmaker and activist Horace Ové CBE, whose work – and that of his peers represented in the show such as Darcus Howe and John La Rose – pioneered an artistic language that shaped black pride and British culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to speak to artists and thinkers today. Here we talk to Ové about this landmark exposition.

What was your initial incentive for curating this show?
My father is 82 and suffering very badly from Alzheimer's. He’s going from home to home on a downhill journey. I was struggling with how someone who had achieved so much in his life time, without remittance financially, had been locked out of the jewels of that memory. I also came to realise that unless his work was given a new lease of life, it would all too easily dissipate.

What originally drew Horace to filmmaking?
Growing up in Trinidad, Hollywood was massive and going to the neighbourhood cinema was theatrical and interactive. People would watch a film again and again and do a running commentary, ‘Look out, they’re coming behind you!’ Horace couldn’t have imagined at that time that a young Caribbean man could have a career in film but there was that incentive, which lead him toward cameras, and then to investigate film when he moved to London in 1960.

Themes of carnival and masquerade run throughout the show, from his work to your own.
From the point of a view of a generation that had emancipated itself through carnival, it was a medium that could help right the wrongs and tell the stories of injustice. I honour Claudia James, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival after the Notting Hill race riots to form a liminal space where English people could embrace this foreign culture and build a rapport. Carnival at that moment was created as a leveller and I’ve always wanted to understand better how this multiculturalism was born out of necessity and geography.

In the show we have portraits by Charlie Phillips from Carnival in 1968, which are almost biblical for me. And we have Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s The Dice Table, a tribute to Frank Crichlow from The Mangrove, who really pushed the spirit of Carnival during periods when the government tried to shut it down. Notting Hill was the most important festival for our community.

On view are some of Horace’s most pivotal films, such as his first work, Baldwin’s Nigga (1969).
This is the documentary of James Baldwin and Dick Gregory in London being confronted by an African and West Indian audience to talk about the dilemma between the blacks in the US and what’s happening in Europe and Africa. Horace was always politically driven; he arrived here with people like Michael X and John La Rose, which was a turbulent time.

Conversely The Black Safari (1972) is a spoof documentary for the BBC.
I spent a long time getting this out from archives – no one has seen it for 30 years. It tells the story of the expedition to the centre of England by four Africans who sail to Wigan on behalf of Africa and prosperity. It’s hysterical because of the bravery of the filmmaking.

Your peers, having learnt from his generation, permeate the show beautifully.
Camden Town was a hot bed. I went to school with Normski and we learnt photography together. His images are here next to Jazzie B’s first Soul II Soul jacket. And me and Hassan Hajjaj have been best friends since 1982. Horace’s camera went from him to me to Hassan and now he’s the most recognised of all of us. There was a moment when he returned to Morocco and me to Trinidad and we had an epiphany in terms of how you can find your sense of importance in that other location when you feel adrift here as sons of immigrants. The way he brokered his own culture to make Moroccan garments out of fake branded goods that gave empowerment to segregated people was amazing.

There are two of your own sculptures on view. Tell us about Lajabless (2013).
Lajabless is a mythical character in Trinidad with an African history. She is an equaliser with one leg that’s a cow foot with a hook. My version has two faces to represent the duality of feminine and masculine and being empowered. Often in stories she sits looking very sexy and dainty on a crossroads and entices men to wander with her into the bush where she does away with them. But insightfully, she knows who she’s waiting for – it's men who have done wrong to women.

How has the curatorial process changed your own artistic outlook?
You know, what’s brilliant about doing a show like this is looking at how other people talk about similar things in their practice - how they convey messages about what your landscape is and how to move beyond that to become enablers of a bigger story. So as an art maker, the process has really honed my skillset in terms of developing an on-going and relevant language.

You’ve wisely included some of London’s young vanguard such as Gaika, Campbell Addy and Ronan Mckenzie. How does their work speak to what’s gone before?
I think their thing is their thing so I wouldn’t compare it. It is different and it’s supposed to be. But I do hope that I’ve invested the show with my family’s commitment to radical integration. We believe that everyone gets a voice and a chance. In that sense, I hope the show becomes a fruit bowl for younger people to find ideas and a framework of reference for themselves, and that they feel a sense of identity.

Get Up, Stand Up Now is on view in the West Wing Galleries at Somerset House, London until 15 September 2019

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Published on 19/06/2019