June 25, 2019

Get Up, Stand Up Now. Generations of Black Creative Pioneers @ Somerset House, London

Generations of Black Creative Pioneers
Somerset House, London
Through 15 September 2019

Deborah Roberts
Untitled, 2018
Copyright of the artist. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery

Featuring: Anthea Hamilton, Armet Francis, Black Audio Film Collective, Bradford Young, Carrie Mae Weems, Chris Ofili, David Hammons, Dennis Bovell, Derrick Adams, Ebony G Patterson, Gaika, Glenn Ligon, Grace Wales Bonner, Hank Willis Thomas, Helen Cammock, Horace Ové, Jenn Nkiru, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lubaina Himid, Marlon James, Martine Rose, Mowalola Ogunlesi, Nari Ward, Peter Doig, Ronan McKenzie, Sanford Biggers, Sonia Boyce, Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare, Young Fathers, with a specially commissioned soundtrack by Jillionaire of Major Lazer. Curated by Zak Ové.

This summer, Somerset House celebrates the impact of 50 years of Black creativity in Britain and beyond, with a landmark exhibition showcasing art, photography, music, literature, design and fashion. It is the first time that this distinguished group of approximately 100 artists are represented together, with their work articulating and addressing the Black experience and sensibility, from the post-war era to present day.

Historic artworks and new commissions sit alongside items from personal archives, much of which has never been seen by the public before. Through these original photographs, letters, films and audio clips, the exhibition connects the creative, the personal and the political, reflecting how artists have responded to the issues of our times.

Richard Rawlins
The True Crown, from the series I AM SUGAR, 2018
Copyright of the artist

Curated by acclaimed artist Zak Ové, Get Up, Stand Up Now begins with the work of his father, Trinidadian Horace Ové, credited as the creator of the first feature film by a Black British director, and his pioneering peers who were part of what is now known as the Windrush generation, such as Armet Francis, Charlie Phillips and Vanley Burke. During the 1960s and 1970s, they developed a new creative model for modern multicultural Britain, paving the way for the next generation of artists, such as John Akomfrah, Sonia Boyce and Steve McQueen, who all contribute to the exhibition.  Get Up, Stand Up Now extends to works from today’s brilliant young Britain-based talent too, including photographer Ronan McKenzie, fashion designer Mowalola Ogunlesi and musician Gaika, who interrogate identity in innovative ways.  Carrying forward the line of enquiry and internationalist ambition established by Horace Ové and his dynamic creative circle, a number of renowned contemporary diasporic artists also participate in the exhibition, including David Hammons, Carrie Mae Weems and Sanford Biggers.

Curator Zak Ové has invited each artist to exhibit on account of their significant contribution to shaping our cultural landscape.  All the artists’ trailblazing work transforms their local experiences into a global, universal language, which challenges the systems of power and representation and continues to change the consciousness of society today. 

Che Lovelace
Figure at Treetop, 2016
Courtesy and Copyright of the artist 
and Galerie Eric Hussenot, Paris
Photo Brendan Dalzin



Many works reflect on the act of remembrance and recognition of places and people, acknowledging the significant contribution of Black culture and individuals, both those renowned today and those overlooked or forgotten by history.

One of the show’s opening works includes award-winning film maker Steve McQueen’s poignant Remember Me, his first work conceived in neon and consisting of three handwritten versions of its title.  Originally made in the wake of McQueen’s celebrated film installation Ashes, about the violent and premature death of a young Grenadian man, it was personally chosen by McQueen for Get Up, Stand Up Now.  McQueen’s meditation on memory is particularly pertinent in relation to the impact of Horace Ové, whose work is recalled throughout the show by subsequent generations of artists.

Michael X, who once claimed to be “the most famous Black man in Britain” as the self-styled leader of the British Black Power movement, is shown alongside supporters John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an unseen shot by Horace Ové, recently discovered in his personal archives.  The activist lived in the flat above the Ové family and many of the British Black Power meetings took place in the Ové’s garden.  His life is also mined in John Akomfrah and Black Audio Film Collective’s most controversial film Who Needs a Heart.  Michael X’s US counterpart Leroy Eldridge Cleaver is captured with his wife Kathleen by Gordon Parks, one of the most important figures of twentieth century film and photography and a significant influence on many Black British creatives.  Parks is the first African-American to produce and direct major motion pictures, including the original Shaft film, and became the first Black photographer for Life and Vogue magazines.  Photo conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas draws a striking parallel between a labourer and an American football player, depicting the athlete in a kneeling stance in his 2011 work Cain't See in the Mornin' til Cain't See at Night.

The 2017 Turner Prize winning artist Lubaina Himid’s painting Venetian Maps: Ceramicists represents the contribution made by Africans to the cultural history of Venice.  The Oscar-nominated cinematographer of Arrival and Selma, Bradford Young, is reworking his video installation REkOGNIZE, especially for the exhibition.  It documents the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where millions of African-Americans migrated in the early 20th century, becoming a centre of artistic creation.  Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson’s intricate tapestries compile images of murder victims in the crime scene, uploaded onto social media from around the world.  The works are highly embellished with beads, glitter, flowers, fringing and appliqué fabrics, seducing viewers into witnessing the underreported brutality experienced by those of lower socioeconomic standings, often from Black communities.

Photographer Ajamu showcases his sublime series of portraits of young Black British queer artists, activists and cultural commentators.  Birmingham-based artist Barbara Walker’s detailed drawings recall Britain’s Black servicemen. Created using archive material from the First and Second World Wars, the pictures are a powerful reminder of how they are often missing in representations of the British Armed Forces.

Music plays an important part in Get Up, Stand Up Now, exploring the immense influence of Black artists on many genres of music.  Somerset House has commissioned two new audio works, especially for the exhibition.  The stratospheric DJ Jillionaire, one third of supergroup Major Lazer, has mixed an exclusive soundtrack to be streamed inside the gallery.  He has created a musical bridge between the generations in Get Up, Stand Up Now, bringing his take on the beats of calypso and soca, straight from the streets where he grew up in Trinidad, to the sounds of Afrofuturism. Artist Libita Clayton will orchestrate live percussive performances inside the space on select dates, exploring ideas of resistance through rhythm and language.

A host of musicians have also selected objects to go on display, which speak of their musical inspirations and creative processes.  Each object is additionally accompanied by a playlist curated by the musician.  Contributors include reggae maestro Dennis Bovell, a musician and producer on many classic hits, having collaborated with the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Slits, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Horace Ové on the seminal television series Empire Road.  Sons of Kemet’s frontman Shabaka Hutchings – who is performing at this year’s Somerset House Summer Series with American Express – has given the clarinet gifted to him by legendary jazz musician Courtney Pine. 

Somerset House Studios resident Jenn Nkiru – one of Jay Z’s and Beyoncé’s collaborators on APESH*T – showcases her trailblazing films, made with the likes of Neneh Cherry and Kamasi Washington.  Her fellow Studios artist Gaika presents his new immersive installation Heaters 4 the 2 Seaters, inviting visitors into his signature subversive and satirical take on the current political and geo-economic climate.

Clips from Horace Ové’s seminal 1970s documentaries Reggae and King Carnival will also be shown.  One of the first documentaries made on Reggae music, Reggae features exclusive footage from a festival held at Wembley Stadium in 1970 and King Carnival charts the history of the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival, commissioned for the BBC series The World About Us.  Carnival is referenced in numerous exhibition works, recognising the rich symbolic and historical significance of colonial independence through this celebration.  Rarely seen archive materials documenting Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival, will also be on display.
A series of sculptural works represent self-identity and transformation.  Fashion’s favourite new designer Mowalola Ogunlesi will create a new life-size mannequin of an Afrofuturistic cowboy, complete with guitar to conjure a future-facing soundtrack, drawing inspiration from the street style and sounds of Lagos.

Berlin-based artist Satch Hoyt presents Ice Pick, an Afro hair pick cradled in an upholstered musical instrument case, usually carried by classical orchestras.  It is accompanied by a rhythmic soundscape of two African-American women performing the daily ritual of combing their hair with wooden, plastic and metal picks.  Faisal Abdu’Allah, who works as a barber alongside his artistic and academic practice, brings his gold-plated The Barber’s Chair to the show, recognising the barber’s salon as an indistinguishable site of communal exchange and comradery.  David Hammons also draws inspiration from African hair in his Hair Relaxer.  The title refers to the painful practice of ‘relaxing’ or straightening African hair, yet the sculptural installation shows a long head of hair, unstraightened and retaining its natural kinkiness, lying at ease on an old-fashioned chaise lounge, often used in the representation of female beauty in European art.

The archives of Althea McNish, Britain’s first Black textile designer of international repute who brought tropical colour to British textiles and changed interior design trends, have been referenced for the exhibition.  McNish’s work resonates with Yinka Shonibare’s trademark wax batik fabric, summoned in Self Portrait (after Warhol) and incorporated into the 24-carat gold gun-toting Revolution Kid (Calf).  In a new, site-specific commission for the show, Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk creates an Afrofuturistic mural and temple to learning, with bespoke table and seating by exhibition designer Yinka Ilori.

Get Up, Stand Up Now also presents rarely seen work from an exciting range of photographers, who have provided new perspectives in fashion photography, including Ronan McKenzie, Armet Francis and Campbell Addy.

Visitors will have the opportunity to watch feature-length screenings of Horace Ové’s seminal films Pressure and Baldwin’s Nigger, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  Baldwin’s Nigger documents a conversation between the eminent American author James Baldwin, whose books include If Beale Street Could Talk and I Am Not Your Negro, and comedian Dick Gregory.  Ové’s close relationship with Baldwin is further illustrated in a number of intimate photographic portraits. Pressure follows the fictional story of a British-born son of a first-generation Trinidadian family finding himself adrift between two cultures.  Behind the scenes photographs, hand-notated scripts, original film cannisters and letters relating to the film are also shown.

Scottish born, Trinidadian based artist Peter Doig has created original hand-drawn film posters for both Horace Ové and Zak Ové’s films to be screened in Get Up, Stand Up Now. They feature alongside Doig’s numerous alternative film posters, used to advertise his Studio Film Club, free weekly film screenings organised by himself and fellow Get Up, Stand Up Now contributor Che Lovelace in Doig’s Port of Spain studio.

Poems from dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Commonwealth Poetry Prize winner Grace Nichols and former Young Poet Laureates for London Caleb Femi and Selina Nwulu will be vibrantly reimagined throughout the exhibition. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, featuring the poems and new essays from editor of New Daughters of Africa Margaret Busby, artist and curator David A. Bailey and publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove.

An extensive talks and events programme provides exclusive insights into some of the key protagonists and works within the exhibition.

Strand, London, WC2R 1LA