As a child, my superheroes were artists,” says Zak Ové. Perhaps it was inevitable growing up in a bohemian west London household with his father, Horace, a Trinidad-born artist who arrived in the UK in 1960 and became a key figure in British film, TV and photography. Horace was the first black British film-maker to direct a feature-length film (Pressure, 1976). It was through his films and photographic work chronicling black British life that he forged bonds with influential cultural figures such as the US writer and activist James Baldwin, photographer Armet Francis and textile designer Althea McNish, who were like an extended family for the young Ové. They were, he says, guiding lights to an “artistic life and black consciousness”.
But he’s quick to point out that “within Horace’s group, it wasn’t just a black thing”. Social consciousness more widely drove their activism. Ové’s white Irish mother was a diehard socialist, and at dinner with their fists raised high his parents would proclaim: “Power to the people.” Political beliefs were woven into the fabric of the Ové home, which was adorned with African art and artefacts, and Ové and his sister, Indra, were regularly exposed to their father’s working practice, at his “scene” – “be it at a shebeen in Ladbroke Grove, Sunday afternoon jazz or accompanying him to an edit suite”.
Today Ové, a multi-disciplinary artist whose focus on sculpture reflects a passion for the traditions of African mask-making and masquerade, brings the influence of these childhood experiences to curating Get Up, Stand Up Now at Somerset House in London. The show, which opens later this month, celebrates the effect of black creativity on British life over the past 50 years. With echoes of the Wailers’ socially conscious reggae lyrics, it’s a direct response to the Windrush scandal, which saw West Indians who had long resided in Britain wrongly classified as illegal immigrants and deported “back home”. Housing the exhibition at Somerset House, which served at the height of empire as the Royal Navy’s administrative centre, lends it an extra charge.
More than 100 artists will feature – from visual artists and designers to musicians, sound artists, film-makers and writers. Significant historic artworks such as Sonia Boyce’s luminous love song to London, the collage-painting Talking Presence (1987), and a rare sculpture, Remember Me, from the artist and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, will sit alongside work by some of the most dynamic younger artists working today, including the fashion designer Mowalola Ogunlesi, whose African high-life inspired designs have led her to the brink of stardom.
Ové has also discovered jewels in the archives, including a film of Blackblast, the first play performed at the ICA written by a black writer, Lindsay Barrett, staged by a black director, Horace Ové, and featuring an all-black cast. That performance of experimental theatre and African dance marked the moment when black art moved from the margins to the centre of British culture. Filmed by the BBC, it has rarely been seen since its first broadcast in 1973.
More than 40 years on, Horace now has Alzheimer’s disease, and Ové is determined to show in the exhibition how the evolution of black British art was partly inspired by his father’s creative hub, which connected artists over several generations. “I’ve tried to identify as many works as I feel are important from him that speak about our values as a community in this country.” These include the satirical film Black Safari, in which Horace Ové and fellow explorers embark on an “expedition from Africa to the centre of Britain, marked vaguely on an old map”. They sail to Wigan, renaming British fauna and flora after great African kings and queens and taking a few slaves along the way.
The 80s was a golden period for the black British artists who followed in Horace’s footsteps – people such as Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid and Keith Piper from the BLK Art Group, whose campaign for greater representation of black art in Britain culminated in the landmark exhibition The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. The art world is fickle and especially prone to short-term trends, and interest in their work was patchy thereafter. It was always a struggle to maintain a career, so it was heartening that Himid went on to win the Turner prize in 2017.
“Back in the 90s there wasn’t a platform for black artists,” says Ové. “So even though you were elevated for a while it was difficult to keep going; for instance there was a barren period of several years when Horace couldn’t get a film made.” Ové believes that the dynamic changed with Chris Ofili’s retrospective at Tate Britain in 2010. Thousands attended that exhibition drawn by the gorgeous, opulent and sometimes poignant paintings such as No Woman, No Cry depicting Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. “Suddenly institutions woke up,” says Ové, “and thought to themselves, ‘if we get this right there’s a massive market here that want to see themselves.’”
Major exhibitions followed, by Yinka Shonibare, whose Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2010, and John Akomfrah with his show Purple at the Barbican in 2017. That same year, the first Diaspora Pavilion opened at the Venice Biennale. Aiming to tackle the under-representation of black and minority artists and themes in the art world, it boosted many lesser-known figures, such as Khadija Saye (who died in the Grenfell Tower fire) and Hew Locke.
Visitors to the Somerset House show may be surprised to find work by contemporary African American artists such as Sanford Biggers and Hank Willis Thomas. Isn’t Ové risking complaints from British artists who haven’t made the cut? He thinks not. “Those brothers and sisters in the US are ahead of us a lot of the time in terms of the spaces they’ve had to develop in. To ignore them would be bizarre, especially when we’re exploring similar values and histories. Essentially we’re fighting the same struggle.”
The exhibition will cover 17 rooms with different themes. A calypso-inflected soundtrack composed by Chris Leacock (DJ Jillionaire and a member of the trio Major Lazer) will play throughout. Ové hopes the composition, which will update London Is the Place for Me – famously sung by Trinidadian calypso artist Lord Kitchener on Pathé News’s Windrush footage – will connect the generations of artists. On a more personal level, he hopes that the show will forever delineate the connections between Horace Ové and proceeding generations of artists whose work has flourished partly because of bold innovators such as his father. One of Ové’s own pieces in the show, Umbilical Progenitor – a barefoot African astronaut time-traveller made from recycled material – was created, he says, “in reverence of the journey I’d been on with my own father through our lifetime together”.
For Ové, one of the values of the exhibition is the chance to take stock of the range and excellence of black British art; for artists to measure themselves alongside their peers, and continue to inspire each other. It certainly seems that after Get Up, Stand Up Now there will be many more black stars in the arts firmament.