Exhibition TBT – ‘Get Up Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers

Yinka Shonibare CBE ‘Revolution Kid (Calf)’ (2012), Author’s own image (2019).

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As you can see I’m still in this mood of reminiscing. Today I’m thinking back to the incredibly important Get Up Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers exhibition. For me, going to this exhibition was actually an assignment from my mentor — to think about exhibition design. But in fact, this exhibition turned out to be a major learning experience about Black creativity over the past 50 years. In this post, I’ll be sharing which artworks caught my attention as I reflect on my thoughts about this exhibition.

Context

Zak Ové is a British artist who creates and makes works of art using photography, sculpture, films and paintings. Inspired by the traditions of Trinidad’s carnival, Ové’s work explores lost culture and mythology by collaging contemporary and aged materials.

Back in 2019, Ové brought together 110 Black artists who hailed from Britain and the diaspora. These artists displayed work which looked through a contemporary and historic lens — spanning 50 years. In an interview with Afropunk, I feel Ové sums up his thinking behind this exhibition by saying:

‘I think he [Horace Ové, Zak’s father] 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’ (McClure, 2019).

So how did Ové accomplish this?

As I mentioned above, my mentor suggested that I go to this exhibition and check out the exhibition design. My mentor sent me these questions to think about when walking through the galleries:

  1. Consider the work and artist I liked
  2. What was the structure of the exhibition?
  3. Were there things I found less successful?

Here’s what I thought….

The West Wing of Somerset House is quite a grand building from the outside. Once inside, there is a long corridor cutting through the building which leads off to several large rooms. In each of these rooms, there was a specific theme or narrative where artworks become the storytellers.

  1. Consider the work and artist I liked

Encountering the work of over 100 artists was quite a lot to take in. Especially when I think about the number of artists who I was being introduced to, for the first time. Being surrounded by this new information made it difficult to select which works or artists I was particularly drawn to.

Nick Cave ‘Arm Peace’ (2018), Author’s own image (2019).

When I first saw Nick Cave’s, ‘Arm Peace’ (2018) the words strength and hope immediately came to mind. From my view, the flowers symbolised hope — which is quite a heavy weight to carry while navigating through life. This weight can be viewed from two perspectives — the physical weight of the sculpture but also the weight of pressure to remain hopeful in world with many obstacles. The strength of the sculptured arm suggests that the weight of hope, both physical and mental, is a weight worth carrying.

Victor Ekpuk’s ‘Temple of Learning’/ ‘Shrine to Wisdom’, Author’s own image (2019).

At the end of the exhibition, Victor Ekpuk’s fills a space with hand painted lyph-based symbols inspired by Nsibdi writing systems from south-east Nigeria’ (Museum Geographies). At the centre of the back wall, Victor Ekpuk’s The Philospher inspires thinking in this space which had a selection of books to read. This room also inspired thoughts on creativity, space and the possibilities of the future. This could potentially relate to the theme of Afro-futurism which Ové explores within this exhibition.

Sonia Boyce Detail from Talking Presence (1987), Author’s own image (2019).

As a Londoner, I can’t help but feel the magic of this city from this artwork. The combination of the bright lights and iconic London landmarks almost appears as a backdrop for a film set. Once moving past the landmarks, I began to notice the skyrise buildings and apartments. And the fact that the iconic scenes of London appeared further away, closest to the stars. This artwork made me think about what London means to people and how much this is influenced by iconic landmarks. And whose reality is included/excluded in this thought process? I imagine this artwork provokes conversation starters about meanings of place.

2. What was the structure of the exhibition?

Ishmahil Blagrove Jr ‘Carnival Trolley’ (2016), Author’s own image (2019).

Each room explored a different theme which included a real mix of artworks on display such as paintings, sculptures, film, sound recordings and music. The themes I identified were:

  • Pioneers
  • Representations of Blackness,
  • Perception of self vs how others see you
  • International links with the diaspora
  • Black presence in Britain post-war Britain
  • Changes in society
  • Migration
  • Afro-futurism

These themes were communicated clearly by tying with events (historic and contemporary) and key movements. Clearly, a lot of research had gone into this process to bridge all this material together.

The exhibition clearly introduced Black British creative pioneers across art forms, with a focus on the work of Horace Ové and his collaborations with other pioneers.

One display table showing some of the research available, Author’s own image.

3. Were there things I found less successful?

  • From an access point of view, I noticed some physical and intellectual barriers. Physically, some interpretation panels were placed at awkward heights which could have been barrier for people with access needs. Intellectually, at times I felt knowledge about Horace Ové and the work he had done was assumed — which certainly wasn’t the case for me
  • The sheer number of artworks on display meant there was a lot of content and concepts to digest. Which became tricky when there wasn’t always seating available in the galleries to gather your thoughts.
  • There was only a brief section on queerness (in one room), with no links to contemporary movements such as UK Black Pride or collectives such as Galdem.
Stephen Burks ‘Grasso Vases’ (2018), Author’s own image (2019).

My takeaways

  • I learnt so much from this exhibition! I made a seriously long list of authors, artists, concepts, historical events and musicians I want to research further. As a lot of this content introduced me to parts of Black British history I didn’t know about.
  • It was mindblowing to see over 100 Black artists in a major gallery space. This makes me think about how Black artists engage with these spaces in future. And the role of curators when thinking about the content for exhibition designs.

I’ll end this post on a poignant quote from Ové’s interview with Afropunk which I thought summarised the importance of this exhibition and it’s legacy:

  • ‘I was keen to demonstrate how these pioneering figures informed the work that followed. It’s important to recognise 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’ (McClure, 2019).

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Lisa @Heritage_io

Hi I’m Lisa | Based in Brum, UK | Curator | Blogging to challenge the idea that history, art, culture and heritage is irrelevant| Twitter & IG: @heritage_io