In a 1968 photograph of Michael X, the self-styled British Black Power leader, being interviewed by the press in his London garden, a baby crawls in the right-hand corner, peeking through the journalists’ legs. The shot was taken by the child’s father, photographer and film-maker Horace Ové, who lived in the flat below Michael X. His son Zak Ové, now an artist aged 52, is the curator of a momentous show on black artistic achievement from the 1940s to the present. As the archive photograph intimates, his angle on history is a privileged, if unusual, one.
The Ovés, father and son, provide the artistic lens for Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers, at Somerset House in London. The show of more than 100 artists, from music and design to art and literature, was instigated in the wake of the Windrush scandal, showcasing the impact of black creativity on British culture over 70 years. The opening work is Hew Locke’s “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (2004), the British lion-and-unicorn crest rendered in rags and artificial hair.
Yet the show controversially but rightly extends to US, Caribbean and African artists across the diaspora, such as the African-Americans David Hammons and Carrie Mae Weems. As the writer Caryl Phillips recalls in a catalogue essay, he once heard Horace Ové and James Baldwin “conversationally bouncing between Harlem, Trinidad and Brixton. It was as though all three worlds were the same place — which, on some level, they are.”
In contrast to earlier landmark shows such as The Other Story at the Hayward 30 years ago, this is no riposte to marginality. It resembles a roll call of the famous and the first, from Turner Prize winners Chris Ofili (the first black British artist at the Venice Biennale), Lubaina Himid and (Oscar-winner) Steve McQueen to Althea McNish, whose textile designs for Liberty and Dior were an innovation in screen printing, and the trailblazing publisher Margaret Busby, co-founder in 1967 of Allison & Busby and editor of the recent anthology New Daughters of Africa. Like No Colour Bar, a 2015 show at the Guildhall, this is both art gallery and archive — much of it retrieved from back rooms and basements.
It is not a facile celebration. Neil Kenlock’s photograph of a record shop in Brixton documents the clear-up after attacks on black businesses in the mid-1970s. In the first room, Franklyn Rogers’ photographic portrait of his grey-haired mother, Loretta (2006), with a sceptical eye and a determined set to her mouth, is complemented by the Trinidadian Richard Mark Rawlins’ “Empowerment” (2018), a surreal digital print of a clenched fist emerging from a china tea cup — itself a response to a seminal essay on sugar and empire by the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
There are loose themes, from “Motherland” to “Mothership”. But the unity lies in Horace Ové’s compelling photographs throughout, from intimate portraits of CLR James, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Busby to a shot of Michael X advancing with his en [Text Box: Aubrey Williams, Maya series Cenote IV, 1968.] tourage through Paddington station, and the street fête of “Windrush Generation” (1969) — a colour photo for a record cover that broke with the sexualised images used to sell black music.
The Trinidadian Ové, now aged 80, first entered a film set as a slave in Cleopatra. During the film’s shooting in Rome, he fell for Italian art-house cinema and later the surrealism of Buñuel. Some of his films are on a loop here (with a BFI weekend in July), including Baldwin’s Nigger (1969) and Pressure (1976). The first feature by a black British director, giving a surreal twist to the disenchantment of a second generation, this was initially shelved as too explosive after the Notting Hill Carnival riots of 1976.
Many of these artists, according to the curator, were working “in an outsider way, in isolation”. Yet the show’s rare power lies in its intimate access to an extended family. The section “Dream to Change the World” is also the title of Ové’s film on the late John La Rose, the Trinidadian founder of New Beacon Books and a magnet for artists and activists. Baldwin signed a first edition of his book No Name in the Street, “For Horace, my brother,” from “Jimmy B”. Sam Selvon, Trinidadian author of The Lonely Londoners — pictured in a photograph with La Rose — wrote the screenplay for Pressure. Implicit is how these artists were sustained by informal networks, life-giving collectives, from the New Beacon bookshop and the Caribbean Artists’ Movement to Autograph ABP for black photographers.
Some art reflects this sense of admission to an inner world, from Victor Ekpuk’s new installation “Shrine to Wisdom”, on whose temple walls is inscribed a private script, to Faisal Abdu’Allah’s “The Barber’s Chair” (2017), a gold-plated throne in a darkened palace of male intimacy and exchange, where Ofili’s “Afro Lunar Lovers” (2003), a small giclée print with gold-leaf, is entirely at home.
Horace Ové is an artist and a dreamer, according to Phillips, in a tradition of West Indian Modernist migrants who “disrupt form and create a new aesthetic”. Such new aesthetics are manifest, from Zak Ové’s use of Afrofuturistic granite to replace ebony in his sculptural installations, to Phoebe Boswell’s reclaiming of the female nude in her three-channel video “I Need to Believe the World is Still Beautiful” (2018).
Along with a new sound piece by Chris Leacock, “Empire Windrush”, a section on “Masquerade” shows how sound systems became totems of pride and community. The masked performance to challenge others’ perceptions is present in Hassan Hajjaj’s photographic portraits. Hajjaj, who combines pop art and fashion photography with a Moroccan palette and west African studio portraiture, was given his first camera as a hand-me-down from Horace and Zak Ové.
“Mothership” encapsulates an ambivalence that runs through this challenging show that is so much about memory and artistic lineage. Alongside heroes such as “Blaize” (2013), from Hajjaj’s “My Rockstars” series, jauntily posed, claiming his own destiny, is Zak Ové’s installation “Umbilical Progenitor” (2018). A moving tribute to a father and son, the parental astronaut with a child on his back suggests an uncertain future. Symbols carved on the ground are like an ancestral language to be passed on.