artist zak ové on curating ‘get up, stand up now’

June 14, 2019
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Get Up, Stand Up Now is the school of loud, proud and unbound,” says Zak Ové, referencing the name of a summer-long exhibition that he has curated at London’s Somerset House. Tracing multigenerational artistic lineages across mediums and the Black diaspora, Get Up, Stand Up Now features the work of 110 interdisciplinary artists, and includes both members of the ancestral generation and a vast array of 21st century global Black creatives.

Ové’s keen eye, and deep personal engagement with the historical context guides the show’s exploration of unresolved diasporic concerns, and how new-world mediums and materials are taking these conversations into the stratosphere. “We’re questioning our future through Afrofuturism,”the 53 year-old visual artist says. Get Up, Stand Up Now emphatically reclaims the colonial origins of Somerset House, a neoclassical palace built towards the end of the 18th century, and paints it Black. The exhibition’s programming gets your mind right, touching upon every medium — visual art, music, performance, sculpture, installation, food, film, conversation — where Black creative vision helped construct the modern cultural landscape. There’s even an accompanying podcast series to bring you all the way up to date

How Zak Ové approached the monumental task of putting together Get Up, Stand Up Now, and why he did, was the subject of AFROPUNK’s email conversation with the artist

Can you tell us about the genesis of this exhibition and honoring the legacy of your father, the film-maker/photographer Horace Ove?

I started by looking at my father Horace’s archive.  He created his first film [Baldwin’s Nigger] 50 years ago.  I was born into an artistic family and brought up in an extended artistic family.  Many practitioners of the Windrush generation became parental to me. Quite literally, I began with all of them.  

Horace Ové, ‘John Lennon giving Michael X his hair to auction (1969).

What was fascinating to me for this show was thinking about which peers were working alongside Horace and then explore who their work was talking to – the next generation of artistic cousins who were inspired by them, taking forward similar themes, and how they spoke collectively.  I was keen to demonstrate how these pioneering figures informed the work that followed. It’s important to recognize this dialogue, and to consider the new generation of young Black artists who are looking for people working in their practice, speaking about issues like their own, from their own homegrown society.

Everyone stands on the shoulders of their elders.  Regardless of age and boundaries, I realized there was a shared experience throughout these different mediums and throughout the diaspora.  And it just excited me.

Alexis Peskine, ‘Aljana Moons II’, (Courtesy of Alexis Peskine and October Gallery, London)

Reviewing the whole of this show, it’s interesting for me that my father had literally created a podium for so many Black artists, to honour them. I think he strongly believed that if we don’t honor ourselves, who will? Moving forward, we need to revere our own practices within institutions like this one, championing our own.

Are there any highlights from the exhibition’s programming throughout the summer that you think point to new directions or conversations that will lead Black creativity into unchartered territories – into the future?

What I’m more interested in than selecting highlights is the overall impact of placing contemporary works alongside ancestral works of the last 50 years, and how we’re able to look at the symposium of old and new. By doing this, audiences can look afresh at issues that drive the work and explore which issues are pertinent time and time again over a 50 year period. What are the concerns that we have as a community that haven’t really changed within that period of time? How did we address those issues then, how we address the now, and what is the interaction between the times? Observing the spectrum of resistance art, how do we use new world-mediums and materials to take these conversations to new levels? I’m fascinated to see how people respond to these questions.

Richard Rawlins, ‘The True Crown’, (from the series, I AM SUGAR, 2018). (Copyright of the artist)

Is there a particular distinguishing characteristic or unique flavor embedded in Black British art that informs its ethos? Did your own interest in Carnival as a site of artistic inquiry color your approach to the exhibition?

I don’t think there’s a particular distinguishing characteristic in Black British art that informs its ethos, but more that the goal-posts of living and working in Britain give us an aesthetic barometer, by looking at everything around us in a city like this and using those as points of influence within our contemporary Black art making. What I find really interesting is the honing of materials — how people create narrative in their work, be it installation or sculpture, with a new hybridity of future-world materials. For example, we’ve seen mask-making evolve such as with my own use of automobiles or LR Vandy’s use of boat hulls – we’re questioning our future through Afrofuturism. Equally I’ve been interested by how we’ve had to draw ourselves into historical situations we were written out of, and the continuum of that; and how contemporary artists consider themselves in context of British history and a British future.

The importance of the exhibited works is this sense of pride, not worrying if it’s allowed or not.  The artists are saying: “I can only apologise if this affects you; this is my soul, my beliefs and my ancestry, and I want to revere it.”  Get Up, Stand Up Now is the school of loud, proud and unbowed.

Yinka Shonibare CBE, ‘Self Portrait (after Warhol) 6’ (2013). (Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and James Cohen Gallery, New York)

The exhibit features groundbreakers from the Windrush generation next to more recently recognized artists, like Deborah Roberts and musicians like Jillionaire. What is the importance of creating the exhibit as an intergenerational space?

Placing intergenerational works in this show side-by-side allows us to look at the evolution and connections between them. I feel really strongly that the political and cultural dialogue that was very set within Black music — from blues, jazz and hip-hop to reggae and calypso — has, in the last 20 years, moved into the contemporary art practice. I say that because, as a kid, Black music really represented culture and a fatherly voice, often in the absence of parents. Sound systems were totemic as places of congregation where you could find a sense of self, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity. Reggae music had always put a cultural imprint into teaching you to recognize your self-importance, to respect your sisters, to try and enrich your life and world with a sense of African heritage, and to take pride in that.

I have identified and invited artists who have similarly made a significant contribution to shaping this country’s creatives and the cultural and political landscape in general. Innovative work that challenges the systems of power and representation and continues to change the consciousness of society today.  

What I’m excited about within the scope of this exhibition is putting into context a sense of history. So we can recognize who these Black pioneers were and what their struggles were; how they came together as a group prior to the digital age; how they found one another, that sense of community; and, on a bigger scale, that this was part of a much broader political fight being fought globally, that we are continuing today.

Jenn Nkiru, ‘Still from Neneh Cherry, Kong’ (2018). (Copyright of the artist copy)

Get Up, Stand Up Now is on view at Somerset House, Central London through SEptember 15th.