I curated ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now’ at Somerset House in London in 2019, in tribute to my father’s life and his art. I saw first-hand how Horace Ové’s stories were still such a powerful tool for people to connect with. As a Black person growing up in Britain, you will have heard your parents’ stories of their racial struggles, but nothing is more powerful than putting images and film to those stories and seeing them come alive.
My father, Horace Ové, is an artist compelled to create. His chosen tools as a young man were the exciting mediums of his time – photography and film. Horace, like many photographers of the pre-digital age, worked to find that ‘one image’. He endeavoured to put himself in the moment; stepping on toes, pushing his way in. His craft ultimately led him to film. Photography as moving image – it was a natural progression for him. I don’t think that as an artist in the moment of creation one ever really thinks about legacy. The ‘future maybe’ is not pertinent to the act of making. The artist makes work in the now, the present, and that is what Horace did. He was firmly in his present time.
Born at the dawn of World War II in Belmont, Trinidad, my father’s formative post-war years were shaped by a turbulent multicultural society, driven by radical philosophers and colonial unrest. Steel pan culture, which had grown from the banning of the drum, was the new sound of working-class insurrection and was still illegal. Calypsonians challenged their colonial masters, and Horace’s ‘Bad-John’ generation were tough and relentless men and women who wanted change in their own lifetime. They were educated and committed, defiant and proud.
Before Horace’s generation made these demands, we weren’t eligible to be keepers of our own history. Equal rights were not in the script written by Western societies. So Horace decided to document this struggle. What he captured was a tipping point greater than any in the last hundred years, in terms of real social revolution.
One of the big passions in my life, which Horace gave to me, was the love of Carnival. My love of Trinidad Carnival began as a child travelling with Horace, being involved in his documentation of the roots and rituals of this incredible festival. Carnival championed emancipation and was a revolutionary force in Trinidad, in the fight for independence. Carnival and Canboulay tried to keep alive the spirit of our ancestry, and my enduring fascination is with how African culture has been reimagined for hundreds of years. It is the necessity of the artform to conceal and reveal to its subjects a personification of who they might be if not in bondage and servitude; a reminder of the spirits that protect and guide. It is transfiguration through costume spirit and trance, that allows the masquerader to shake off the dowdy incarnation of one’s futile reality; to release an inner spirit that might dance and fly and sing without inhibitions, fear of white judgement, or the whip.
The Carnival is really the grassroots foundation of my arts practice. In many respects it’s where I found myself. Having grown up partly in Europe, my travels back to Trinidad were revelations of how to use modern materials to recontemporise the mythologies and the culture that are and were Carnival; to preserve its perspective to speak towards the future. My work is about reincarnation in that sense: looking at Old World culture and creating a language to enable it to speak.
After being introduced to Italian cinema and surrealism in his youth, my father realised his own layered mise en scène film style. Wide shots and long takes allowed the picture to convey way more nuance than the words given to the actor.
Born from the theatrics of Carnival and a multicultural Caribbean, Horace would develop an intuitive and filmic style of his own – a Black aesthetic film language with which to tell his stories. His visual commentary, across all the mediums, pictorially documented how for the first time articulate Black voices stood up to hold the world accountable for the neglect and injustice that had been our history.
As a Trinidadian living in 1960s Britain, Horace was part of a Black community living in west London. He and his peers were closely connected not only through their status as immigrants, but through their artforms. They were writers, playwrights, poets, dancers, musicians, singers. They were a hip crowd and they knew the importance of their voice and their right to exist on a level playing-field. Growing up, Horace’s community in Ladbroke Grove were my extended family. The sound systems, the community centre Carnival events and the many notorious liming corners in the neighbourhood were places of worship and further education. Horace was a founder member of the Notting Hill Carnival in London – his peer group brought this tradition with them when they migrated from the Caribbean. I am proud to say I was raised by a village amid a resilient community of people who were trying to make a difference. They were attracted to one another because they wanted a better world, and the world they imagined was nothing like the one they inherited.
Horace investigated what it was to be Black in Britain at that time. Being Black and British was still a recent thing, with the first mass wave of West Indians having lived in the UK for only ten to 20 years. My father keenly observed the time he found himself living in and had the insight to record and transcribe, through film, photography and scripting. Only a handful of individuals from the 60s in Horace’s position did that, which in part is why Horace’s work and legacy hold such relevance as we look back and question where we find ourselves today, politically, racially and socially.
Take Black Safari (1971), a spoof documentary in which a group of Black people “set sail” through the UK to discover “darkest Lancashire” and find the heart of the UK. It parodies a longstanding British colonial attitude of positing Black and African as ‘Other’, and the ‘white explorer’ who ‘discovers’ and makes that discovery official with an Occidental label. In Black Safari, this historical attitude is turned on its head. Britain and its inhabitants instead come ‘under inspection’ and are found wanting. The importance of this type of parody lies in humour as a leveller. If you can laugh at yourself then you might rethink your point of view. Parodic racial comedy creates an opportunity for an uncomfortable personal ‘self-check’ by the viewer (if the individual is receptive to self-analysis), and develops a narrative for public multicultural education. I don’t think Horace did any kind of self-analysis in this regard; it was more that he had a sense of humour and he questioned what was commonplace. He naturally turned on its head that which didn’t make sense to him. He put questions into his art that might cause others to think and question themselves.
As his son, it was Horace’s natural ability to question that is his legacy to me. Horace was always a big personality, a force. He taught me to question and to speak up; not just for myself but for others who couldn’t; for injustice and equity, and not to worry if I made people uncomfortable around me while doing so. He showed me how to stand up to a situation and make it count. When I worked with him on his film Who Shall We Tell? (1985) – about the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, in which many thousands died after a leak at an industrial plant, Horace wanted to tell the human story behind the disaster. He was dismayed at the impersonal coverage of the event, where news at that time was focused on legal and political implications. Horace was determined that these people were seen as that; people, like you and me – not just a bunch of Indians thousands of miles away.
Giving voice to the common individual, whoever that may be; telling their story, being sensitive to that person’s issues and struggles is the basis of Horace’s work and why it shines through today. These were always real stories about real people’s struggles. His characters in fiction were always well researched and outlined. He documented the emotion and got to the heart of their story as he told it to his audience. We see that in all of his work, like A Hole in Babylon (1979), in which Horace set out to narrate the backstories of a group of young Black men. From the outside they could have been misperceived as hooligans, but in reality all had complex, defining causes driving them. Horace told the story of Black lives in Britain at a time when no one was interested in telling them or hearing them.
To me, Horace Ové has been more than any typical father could be. He’s also been my brother and my friend. With Horace I felt like I’d been given the keys at an early age; that even as a child my opinion was valid. I always felt involved in all his projects. The shebeens, the concerts, carnivals and clubs I was dragged to became my place of residence. That’s where I met my own peers, as so many of these scenes were cross-generational. In many ways I fell in love with his passions. That’s what real inheritance is. In my own practice, I feel I’ve come full circle. That maturity has taught me how important his legacy will always be to me. That legacy is about choosing to act when faced with injustices, and realising the change is yours to make. I still look at life through his lens. It helps me to focus on the decisions I make and where to put my energy.
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