1:54 Contemporary African ARt Fair: Victorious Invisible Men: Visiting Zak Ovés studio
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Zak Ov   'Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness'   2016   Artist with unfinished sculpture (left) and original East African sculpture (right)   Courtesy the artist and Vigo Gallery


On 6th October, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair will return to Somerset House for its fourth London edition, this year presenting its largest programme of special projects yet with 10 contributors. 1:54 is particularly excited to be taking over the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court for the first time ever with an installation by Vigo Gallery’s Zak Ové.Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blacknesswill consist of forty, two metre high black graphite sculptures and will occupy the totality of the fountain space from the 6th – 15th October.

The installation will be a site-specific project, created especially for the fair. Last week, the 1:54 team was fortunate enough to visit Ové’s studio and witness the artist’s creative process. Meanwhile, we had a chance to talk about his sculptural practice, influences and his intentions behind his installation at Somerset House.


Upon seeing the army of beautiful graphite sculptures that will make up Ové’s installation, it is hard to believe that their creator is a self-taught sculptor. The son of the award-winning filmmaker Horace Ové, it is unsurprising that Ové’s training and background was initially in filmmaking. However, following a residency at Caribbean Contemporary Art in 2007, Ové discovered the possibilities of sculpture. “It’s interesting” the artist told us, “I have gradually learned that there is far more of a personal narrative process involved in sculpture than in filmmaking. As a practitioner you have far more creative ownership than with filmmaking. In the latter, you are given a commission with a script and someone else’s concept in place, but with sculpture you don’t have these limitations. You’re on your own.”


This freedom to explore narrative and interpretations forms the basis of all of Ové’s work. The artist is fascinated by the reinterpretation of culture and mythology and uses his practice as a way to explore these reinterpretations through new materials and cultural contexts.


In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Notting Hill Carnival and following on from his installation of Moko Jumbies in the Grand Court of the British Museum last year, Zak Ové has created a courtyard installation at Somerset House that positions a (time travelling) army of masked Invisible men within this historic environment, their symmetry echoing that of the surroundings.


The installation comments on the relationship between power, beauty, identity and skin colour, referencing the Masque of Blackness, a masked play/extravaganza written by Ben Jonson and enacted by Anne of Denmark and her court ladies, painted in ‘blackface’ in the courtyard of Somerset House in 1605. The Masque, was reflective of the societal shift away from notions of black beauty towards a preference for lighter skin in the early 17th Century.


Ové’s Invisible men, inspired by his mixed heritage and by Ralph Ellison’s classic, are surrounded and engulfed within the fountains of the courtyard, a time travelling envoy reclaiming ground for diasporic beauty. Rescaled from an ebony wood sculpture given to Zak in the 70’s by his father, (renowned film maker Horace Ové CBE, Director of the first black British feature film “Pressure” in 1976) into a totemic two meter clay figure then re-cast in graphite (think shading), these figures re-enter a contemporary space, waterproof manifestations of a diasporic scope of infinite variation.


Ové works in sculpture, film, painting and photography and is interested in reinterpreting lost culture and mythology through the repurposing or reimagining of modern and antique found materials. He pays tribute to African and Trinidadian identities which have been given new meanings through the cross-cultural dispersion of ideas and believes strongly in the power of the emancipation of self through the culture of Carnival and Masquerade. Ové translates such cultural productions into new contexts and meanings. In this way, the artist consistently looks to explore questions of the diaspora – of how Africa and its cultural practices may regenerate outside of the Continent.


“One thing I want to emphasise is that a sense of victory is essential to my work. I want people who engage with these works and walk away feeling victorious. The sculptures are not meant to be frightening or intimidating, they are calm and peaceful and noble… and also beautiful!”


Zak Ové’s installation promises to be a striking addition to 1:54. As the fountains flow, this army of figures will stand strong, asserting their presence in the centre of Somerset House’s historic heritage.



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