Get Up, Stand Up Now: Black British art’s response to the Windrush scandal

Talking Presence, 1987, Sonia Boyce.

A new exhibition celebrates black British creativity from the 1970s to the present day. Its curator discusses the show and talks us through eight key pieces

by Colin Grant

“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.

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