The artist's large-scale mythic sculptures, paintings and films offer a glimpse into the historic Caribbean and its links with Africa.
They greet you as if they were alive. Made from a cornucopia of materials, including mannequins, old phones, skulls, textiles, electronical parts and toy cars, Zak Ové’s colourful giant sculptures endow inanimate objects with rich symbolism as well as a life of their own. And that’s the experience one had as they entered into Lawrie Shabibi, a Dubai-based art gallery in Alserkal Avenue, in March for the artist’s first solo show in the region titled Star Liner. “I am very interested in that journey between past and future,” says the artist. “I am trying to bring about a depth on where we are on the human timeline. Art is a journey of emancipation for the self and for others.” Working in sculpture, film, painting and photography—often through a manner of collaging various elements with cast and recovered materials—through his multifaceted and dazzling oeuvre, Ové seeks to requite and reinterpret a lost African culture with the contemporary present.
Born in London in 1966 to a black Trinidadian father and a white Irish mother, Ové’s work is largely influenced by his own personal and cultural upbringing. He graduated in 1987 with a Bachelors in Film and Fine Art from the St Martin’s School of Art in London. His father, Horace Ové, is one of the leading black independent filmmakers to emerge in Britain since the post-war period; his sister, Indra Ové, is an actress. Art and creativity were therefore a fundamental part of his youth. Now working between London and Trinidad and represented by Vigo Gallery in London and Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai, Ové’s work has been exhibited internationally at major galleries and institutions, including the Newark Museum, New Jersey, USA; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Florida, USA; Modern Forms, London, UK; David Roberts Art Foundation, London, UK; Jameel Collection, Saudi Arabia; Walid Kamhawi Collection, Dubai; and the Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, Ohio, USA, among many others. The artist’s Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness is part of a series of new open-air displays celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
In Dubai, Ové’s enormous colourful faces akin to African Edo sculptures were placed within life-size rockets made of car parts, while illuminated lights inside signalled they were ready to take off. Reflective of the exhibition’s title Star Liner, these sculptures ignite ideas of migration and return. Ové was influenced by the Black Star Line of Marcus Garvey, a doomed shipping line of the early 1920s, whose role was to transport goods, and eventually, African Americans throughout the African economy. “Garvey was a Jamaican that arrived to the USA and saw the imbalance and decided to create a shipping line to repatriate African Americans back to Ghana,” explains Ové. “It was the first of its kind during the 1920s to repatriate African Americans back to the continent. As you can imagine this was quickly slain by the powers that be. But in that moment his aspiration was huge. It struck me as incredible and I wanted to take that as the theme of the exhibition in terms of how we repatriate ourselves in the future if in the form of a kind of mythic Pan-Africanism.”
Ové’s rocket-like works were juxtaposed with his new “doily” paintings—beautifully rendered canvases made from vintage European lace doilies, and bespoke ones created by Syrian refugees—adding a touch of the Middle East and references to the displacement and migration in the region. With their vibrant patterns, these paintings reference the spirit of the Trinidadian carnival—an event Ové witnessed regularly growing up. The two largest works in the series—Heaven and Earth—endow structure to their colourful explosion through geometric lines and forms. These works too refer to the carnival culture and its mix of African and Latin heritage, which was so prevalent during Ové’s youth. They are nostalgic essays for the artist—ways to rekindle the past with the present. “In the Caribbean the carnival plays a very important role in the upliftment of its people and bolstering a certain culture as we have been forcibly taken away certain comforts,” says the artist. “The carnival has become a representation of the past. It is also a process of emancipation whereby people can understand that they could break away from a colonial dilemma through exaltation, transfigurement and through costume.”
The relationship between carnival and Africa is prevalent in much of the artist’s work. It originates from the enforced movement of peoples during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. From 1500 to 1900, millions were transported from West and Central Africa to the Caribbean and North, Central and South America. In 2014, Ové became the first Caribbean artist to be commissioned by the British Museum. “I had to make two works that spoke about Africa and the Caribbean,” says Ové. “I looked for mythological characters that had originated in Africa that still represent us in the Caribbean as a part of that diaspora.” His resulting Moko Jumbie figures were the first major contemporary works by a Caribbean artist to be on display in The Sainsbury Africa Gallery as part of the Celebrating Africa season at the British Museum in 2015. The sculptures—one male and one female in striking black and gold costumes inspired by aspects of African masquerade and the Trinidadian Carnival—are now permanently installed in their Africa gallery. In 2016, the artist then did an installation of an “army” of 40 two-metre high stern-faced black figurative statues in graphite, dominating the Somerset House courtyard to welcome visitors to the London edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. “It was also like a selfie booth,” laughs Ové. “I was fascinated by how I could recontextualise the traditions of African sculpture-making. I am interested in the diaspora and what it is to be born off the continent of Africa and what our trajectory is for the future.” Ové’s Moko Jumbies now form part of the museum’s permanent collections.
Moreover, Ové is fascinated by the idea of travel between past and future. “In African cultures, when we dream we enter the sea of fishes,” says the artist. “Water in African culture is a form of kinesis to the ancestral world to other gods and to time travel. In the Caribbean we use blue paint and mud to protect against evil spirits, but also because the mud has a kinesis to the earth, which allows one that transience, to leave the now persona, and to travel into the world of one’s ancestry.” The Edo-inspired sculptures, in their contemporary rockets, bridge the imaginary with the real and the past with the future.
Ové works out of his studio in North London where an imaginary realm is created from his mythic creatures. Ové has brought the carnival to his space in the UK’s capital. “I am a Parliament-Funkadelic,” he laughs. “‘Free your mind and your ass will follow’ said George Clinton.” It seems to be a motto he lives by, and one that also weaves itself through his dreamy yet festive creations that teeter between this world and the next—happily partying their way through life’s boundless resolutions and injustices, and maybe eventually, finding their way back home. “I think a good artist is a superhero,” smiles Ové. “You put a towel around your neck, your shorts on over your trousers, and you try and stand up for good causes that you believe in and the journey through your works is an embitterment of you.” Zak Ové