Zak Ové’s curation of the group exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now (Somerset House, London, 12 June – 15 September 2019) foregrounds and celebrates the work of more than 100 artists from Africa, the Caribbean region, the African Diaspora in Britain and throughout the wider world who have made significant contributions to the UK’s cultural landscape in the decades since the Second World War.
As the exhibition’s sub-title suggests, its showcase pays tribute to generations of black creative pioneers whose artworks have served to voice, visualise and reflect the complexities, political dynamics, pleasures and challenges of black lived experiences in Britain throughout the modern and contemporary eras of the 20th and 21st centuries, as expressed through painting, sculpture, photography, film, music, literature, architecture, artefact assemblages, fashion and design.
Arranged into thematic sections, the artworks and archival exhibits were presented in 15 rooms and corridor display areas along the full length of Somerset House’s ground floor West Wing, with different colour-coded interpretation panels and 1970s-style decorative wall and floor designs signifying the transitions between each of the following five “chapters”:
* (1) Motherland – a selection of works about anti-racist resistance and resilience: from the modernist wooden sculpture “Male Standing Figure, The Priest” (1939) by Ronald Moody and the portrait of “Loretta” (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers, through to Richard Mark Rawlins’ digital photo of a clenched fist in a tea cup, “Empowerment” (2018) from his series I AM SUGAR, illustrating a quote from the essay “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” (1991) by Jamaican-British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1932-2014).
* (2) Dream to Change the World – two large galleries filled with politically aesthetic sculptural installations, artefacts, publications and archival materials providing commentaries on anti-racist campaign activities and struggles for civil and human rights spanning many decades. The poem “Ark” by Jay Bernard (a former writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, London) was prominently displayed at the entrance to this section to testify to the material fragility of archives, as well as the challenges of memorialising difficult and traumatic histories (https://jaybernard.co.uk/).
* (3) Masquerade – four rooms addressing the historical origins, symbolism and legacies of carnival in the Caribbean and also in the UK. Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation Carnival Trolley commemorating the founding of London’s Notting Hill Carnival was a focal exhibit within this section.
- (4) Imaginary Landscapes – featuring works by Lubaina Himid, Cosmo Whyte, Carrie Mae Weems and Che Lovelace that each addressed issues of migration and the many geographical, cultural and psycho-social borders and barriers that have to be negotiated during this process of transition.
* (5) Mothership – the concluding section of the exhibition examining the influence of Afrofuturism within the work of artists such as GAIKA, Rashid Johnson and fashion designer Mowalola.
An overarching theme within the curatorial narrative was a personal and artistic tribute to Zak Ové’s father – internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) – whose works were included alongside contributions from the oeuvres of his artistic predecessors, peers and successors. What united all the featured artists was their inputs within an ever-expanding corpus of outstanding and trailblazing creative practices that have influenced – and continue to positively impact – British cultural life, whilst also producing ripple effects that have helped to transform and diversify the international art canon.
Although my primary catalyst for seeing this exhibition was to review Zak Ové’s selection of paintings, sculptures and photographic works by established and emerging visual artists from Africa, the Caribbean and the global African diaspora, I was equally inspired by the inclusion of literary texts, archival documents, films, video installations and musical soundscapes within each chapter that complemented and contextualised the more traditional fine art pieces.
A particular strength of Get Up, Stand Up Now was the volume and quality of documentary photographs and film excerpts chronicling black British life throughout the post-war period – with street-based images and group portraits by Armet Francis, Dr Vanley Burke, Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and Horace Ové from the 1960s and 1970s displayed alongside more recent, 21st century photographic and video-based works created in the 2000s and 2010s by (amongst others) Ajamu, Jenn Nkiru, Cooly G and Phoebe Boswell.
Additional photographic installations and video art by influential African American contemporary conceptual artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas added further poignancy to the assemblages and helped to show the historical, socio-political and aesthetic connections and resonances within and between the portfolios of artists of African descent who identify as part of a wider, Black Atlantic diaspora.
Given that artworks by women artists of any ethnic background rarely cover more than 10% of the floor and wall space within mainstream European art institutions, it was encouraging to observe that women of colour represented almost a third of the individual contributors and collectives shown in this group exhibition. A balance of 50:50 would have been the ideal ratio, but c.30% representation by women artists was still far better than the disproportions that have persisted as a problematic norm.
Important works by LGBTQI+ artists and arts activists of colour also featured prominently in the selection – with Campbell Addy’s “Engender” (2019) and Ajamu’s “Body Builder in Bra” (1993) standing out as notable highlights.
Archival documentation loaned by heritage organisations such as Autograph (at Rivington Place), Black Cultural Archives, George Padmore Institute and Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) helped to align the exhibition’s artistic, literary and audio-visual content to important, pioneering, art-political campaigns, exhibitions and interventions by national and regional activist groups – from the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM) of the 1960s and early ’70s, the BLK Art Group (Pan-Afrikan Connection) founded in Wolverhampton in the 1980s and the Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998) based in Portsmouth and later east London, through to the more recent research network Thick/er Black Lines established in the capital in 2017.
An alcove at the end of the West Wing was transformed into a stunning, site-specific installation by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk – titled as a“Temple of Learning”/”Shrine to Wisdom” (2019). Within this space, the artist painted an intricate matrix of white, glyph-based symbols inspired by Nsibidi writing systems from south-east Nigeria onto blue and red surfaces to create an immersive, contemplative reading space for visitors.
Get Up, Stand Up Now is, by far, the most thought-provoking and awe-inspiring exhibition I have seen this year, largely because of the sheer volume and depth of archival research integrated into the object assemblages, interpretation literature and audio-visual narratives.
I commend Zak Ové and his network of contributors for working in partnership with Somerset House to display this diverse body of work in a mainstream, central London arts venue – as black British, African and Caribbean diaspora art histories have all too often tended to be marginalised and displaced to the peripheries of social and cultural life in the UK instead of being rightfully centralised and acknowledged as core to the nation’s sense of collective, multicultural identity.
Get Up, Stand Up Now continues at Somerset House through to 15 September 2019. A 160-page, full-colour catalogue (ISBN: 978 1-9996154-4-4) has also been published to accompany the exhibition, with introductory texts by Zak Ové, Jonathan Reekie and Ceri Hand, as well as essays and other contributions by David A Bailey MBE, Margaret Busby, June Givanni, Vivien Goldman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Errol Lloyd, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Caryl Phillips.
Web links and further information:
Zak Ove’s biography and listing of key art works on the Vigo Gallery website – http://www.vigogallery.com/
Exhibition information for Get Up, Stand Up Now on the Somerset House website – https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/get-up-stand-up-now