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Three Generations of Black Artists Tell Us About Working in the UK

Somerset House's 'Get Up, Stand Up Now' exhibition celebrates the country's creative pioneers – then and now – from the past 50 years.

by David Woode
11 June 2019, 10:25am

Left to right: Psychedelic Sister, 1968, copyright of Horace Ové. I'm Home, 3 Moments, copyright of Ronan McKenzie.

“The artists in this show are my superheroes,” says Zak Ové, the curator of Get Up, Stand Up Now, a new exhibition at London’s Somerset House that celebrates black creative pioneers from the past 50 years. “These practitioners have chosen to stand up for the greater good and find a voice within themselves to speak about what they value.”

For the last 10 months, the British-Trinidadian visual artist has cajoled, commissioned and collected work – spanning art, film, photography, literature, music and fashion – from over 100 black artists. Contributions, from the likes of Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, cult menswear designer Martine Rose and ‘the original Funki Dred’ Jazzie B, seek to illustrate how black creativity has helped shape post-Windrush Britain and beyond.

We meet at Ové’s north London home to discuss the exhibition and, over the course of three hours, we dissect youth subcultures and trade stories about being the sons of immigrant men who arrived in 60s Britain from Africa and the Caribbean.

Ové’s father, Horace Ové, is the pioneering Trinidadian director whose 1976 picture, Pressure, was hailed as the first black British feature film. But it was his debut, Baldwin’s Nigger, that served as the genesis of the exhibition.

Released in 1969, it documents American intellectual James Baldwin and the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory talking about black life in America in front of a West Indian and African audience in London. But when Baldwin is challenged on the realities of being black in the UK, a clash of language and semantics proves provocative and compelling.

“Baldwin talks about what the situation will look like in 50 years time and that’s what struck me,” Ové says, “I began to see parallels; how has the foundation that the Windrush generation built helped impress upon today? And if we look at the political context, how far have we really moved?

“I know this exhibition can’t do everything but I hope it can influence the next generation to have conviction and self-belief,” he says, “I want them to know that everything is achievable.”

We meet five contributing artists who – in their own words – describe their experience of making work in the UK.

 Charlie Phillips, ‘Outside the Piss House Pub, Portobello Road, 1968’.jpg
Outside the Piss House Pub, Portobello Road, 1968. Photo by Charlie Phillips

CHARLIE PHILLIPS

As one of the early Windrush settlers, the Jamaican-born photographer arrived in England aged 11 in 1956. He is renowned for his archive of black life in Notting Hill, west London.

“I came to photography in the late-1950s. Lots of black American GIs would visit Notting Hill and one gave me a [Kodak Brownie] camera. That’s when I began to document my community.

“Growing up in London, I was part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Anti-Vietnam War Movement. I participated by photographing them. I ended up in Paris and then hitch-hiked to Rome. It was the early-1960s and the era of la dolce vita (Italian for ‘the good life’). Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were filming Cleopatra and I started chasing them and taking photographs. That’s how it started – I would photograph the stars and the pictures were sold through an agency.

“When Jimi Hendrix first came to London in 1966, I’d see him on Portobello Road and at various black nightclubs. He was always surrounded by groupies. I followed him to the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970 and photographed him days before he died.

“Years ago, I tried to put on an exhibition in the UK and was asked, “Did you really take these photos?” At that time, as a [black photographer] you were fobbed off. They’d think you’d picked [the photos] out of a skip. I never made money from photography but it wasn’t about that – it was the era of sex, drugs, rock and roll. Being a photographer back then opened a lot of doors. You went to places you never thought you’d go. It was fun.

“The thing that gives me a buzz now is digital media. I have a lot of young followers. Some call me ‘Uncle Charlie’ – not just because of my photography but because I have a story to tell. This is what keeps me going. For years, black people have been deprived of their culture and seeing images of themselves. I feel I have an obligation to pass on my legacy to the next generation.”

LR Vandy - Crimson and Black, 2019. Copyright of the artist
Crimson and Black, 2019 by LR Vandy, copyright of Dee Haughney.

LR VANDY

The Irish-Nigerian artist’s recent Hull series of sculptures transforms model boat hulls into masks embellished with fishing floats, acupuncture needles and porcupine quills etc.

“I feel honoured to be part of Get Up, Stand Up Now. I’m very aware of what’s gone before; we’re here on the backs of the people who paved the way. I love seeing our narrative made into a visible history for the next generation to believe they have a place in the world. I’d love to see more makers – more black sculptors. It’s important to be seen, to have a voice and to tell stories. If we’re not at the table then we can’t solve the problems.

“My father was a design engineer [so] it wasn’t unusual to see destruction and build. I think that’s why I’m not intimidated by materials or big-scale projects. When I applied to art college, my teachers tried to steer me towards textiles. But I’d been making screen prints of people in violent protest and I thought, ‘You want me to do… textiles?’ I said no, and from that moment my work has been three-dimensional.

“After graduation, I began making things which people thought was jewellery – so I made jewellery. I sold to Bloomingdales and Liberty. I created pieces for John Galliano and ended up doing all the jewellery for the Labyrinth film [starring David Bowie].

“I took a studio on when I wanted to make slightly larger things – but I didn’t know enough so I applied to the Royal College of Art and studied for an MA in furniture design. I later became an art director in television and theatre, designing sets of various sizes.

Last summer I was offered my first solo show, and then a few weeks later my work was included in 1-54 [the Contemporary African Art Fair]. It was my first show! My first sale in the art world was to the British Museum. The reason why I’m telling you this because all these things – all these layers – has given me confidence. The skills I have learned enabled me to feel confident to make this work.”

Phoebe Boswell - I Need to Believe the World Is Still Beautiful, 2018.  Courtesy of the artist
I Need to Believe the World Is Still Beautiful, 2018. Courtesy of Phoebe Boswell

PHOEBE BOSWELL

The visual artist is exhibiting a three-channel video installation called, I Need to Believe The World is Still Beautiful. Every time this work is shown, Boswell asks the woman featured in the work, Buitumelo, what she wants to say, which Boswell then writes onto the architecture of the space.

"I was born in Kenya and grew up in the Arabian Gulf. My dad was a pilot so we travelled a lot. I didn’t grow up with museums and art galleries so I only had a distant idea of the Western canon. But I think I had an inherent visual vocabulary of non-Western aesthetics that existed before I moved to the UK to study Art.

"I’ve always drawn, and drawn people, and I think that’s had something to do with not knowing where I fit in the world. There’s a James Baldwin quote I refer to frequently, ‘The place in which I'll fit will not exist until I make it’, and that's how I approach my work.

"I make work for all of us who don't belong. Women, black women, I think a lot about black women when I make work – I want us to see ourselves – and it's always anchored to this restless state of diasporic consciousness. I think we as diasporic people are so complex; we deserve to be understood in ways that attest to the complexity of our narratives but we are consistently flattened by the world – and very much by the art world.

"We owe so much to the previous generations; they fought so hard and enabled us to be more confident. There are younger black artists who are badass in ways I am not; if I’m invited to an art institution to give a talk, I will say yes and then try to use the platform to critique the institution and amplify our voices. But there's a new generation of artists who are just like, ‘Fuck the institution – I don’t need them.’

“I’m hopeful. There’s a tangible sense of progress, of things shifting. Zak is transforming Somerset House and the exhibition feels like a gift to us all. Being involved in it, how he's brought so many artists together, to communicate, it feels like collective breath. It feels urgent. A galvanising voice."

Gaika
Gaika. Photo via PR

GAIKA

The Brixton-based artist, whose work spans music, sculpture and technology, has contributed a ‘personality assessment centre’ to Get Up, Stand Up Now.

“I’ve always been into avant garde music. When I was young, the music I got my hands on was my dad’s bebop jazz vinyls. I didn’t appreciate it then but it influenced my attitude to music. As I got older I discovered garage, grime, rap and the Bristol trip-hop bands. As a result, I don’t see the separation between Thelonius Monk or Roadside Gs – it’s the story of who I am.

“I started making music aged 13 but I never felt that I could be a performer. For years and years I made music videos and did all these things around artists as opposed to being the artist. But in my mid-20s my Dad became ill and I thought, ‘You’ve got one life.’ Someone told me I should give it a go and I did. I just fell into it.

“I have the privilege of having parents who educated me well so I feel a responsibility – I don’t want young kids coming up feeling the way to be rewarded is to revel in mediocrity.

“There are reasons why I am a man apart, even though I don’t think my music or my art is that difficult to grasp. It is complicated and we are not supposed to be complicated. And if I’m honest – and I think quite deeply about this – I think black culture’s power is in the mechanism within which it exists. Other races and nationalities have very different ways of preserving their culture but what we do is create and then immediately innovate, immediately change it.

“Some of us are compelled to do this – to innovate without real warning. I think it’s powerful and when it comes to my end of culture – urban music and art made by young black men in the city – it’s something that doesn’t get celebrated enough. But nothing will deter me from doing I want to do – I was just born this way.”

Ronan McKenzie, ‘I'm Home, 3 Moments’. Copyright of the artist
I'm Home, 3 Moments. Copyright of Ronan McKenzie

RONAN MCKENZIE

The 24-year-old photographer, director and curator’s clients include i-D, US Vogue, Stella McCartney and Nike. In 2017 she published Hard Ears, a 304-page hardback magazine.

“I always knew there was power within photography and film. In my work, I want the people I shoot to feel comfortable. I see the beauty in everyone I photograph and I think the beauty I see translates when viewers look at my work. For those moments I allow them to be themselves. I don’t ask for anything more or less. I think this is why my images feel honest and natural.

“In October [2018] I curated ‘I’m Home’, [an exploration of home and family through the work of black British female photographers] which featured the work of Rhea Dillon, Joy Gregory and Liz Johnson Artur. I’d never curated anything before but I emailed and asked them to be part of my show – and they accepted.

"I grew up in Walthamstow and being surrounded by different cultures, religions and ideas helped me to feel comfortable in my own skin. Liz Jonhson Artur’s [self-titled monograph] was one of the first photo books I bought and the way she captured people was so relatable to me. She hadn’t shown in London for a long, long time and she was going to be part of my little show in Dalston – 10 minutes from where my Dad was born.

“I self-funded the exhibition and created a programme of events. In showing my art and creating a space where people could hang out, read a book and have dinner, people within the community directly benefited. We also raised £1,800 for a local charity. I was so proud that I could give something back. Also, it proved that if I could self-fund this show and pay each person running an event/workshop, there is no reason why institutions can't do the same.

"My parents taught me the value of investing in myself. I feel privileged to be living solely off my photography work so it’s important I try and create opportunities for others where I can.”

Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers is on at Somerset House, London from 12 June to 15 September 2019. For more details visit somersethouse.org.uk.

@davidwoode