Out of the 110 artists featured in the 2019 Somerset House exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers, Faisal Abdu’Allah stood out the most for one visitor.
The artist’s contribution to the exhibition was The Barber’s Chair (2017), an installation of a gold-plated leather barber’s chair situated in one of the intimate gallery spaces in the 18th-century former palace. A raised platform, black walls and warm golden lighting added to the transformation of this banal piece of furniture into something precious.
For this visitor, The Barber’s Chair evoked the basement of a barber shop where he grew up in Balham, London. In his attempts to become a singer, he rehearsed in the basement while customers upstairs had their hair cut.
It was in that shop that many members of his community gathered: where lively debates created a cacophony of booming voices, where discussions of life’s joys and troubles accompanied the soft buzz of clippers, and where a sense of community and camaraderie fostered an intimacy between Black men across generations. This barbershop was more than a place where men went simply to have their hair cut.
Abdu’Allah’s work triggered a sense of belonging and validated visitors’ experiences, making The Barber’s Chair a fitting installation for Get Up, Stand Up Now. In meeting its brief of reviewing the vast contributions of Caribbean and African culture to British society since the 1960s, the exhibition also created a space for sharing collective memories, exploring multidimensional Black identities and furthered the legacy of the creative Black pioneers who came before us.
Get Up, Stand Up Now was curated by artist Zak Ové who used the work of his trailblazing father, Trinidadian-born filmmaker and artist Horace Ové, as inspiration. Starting with his father’s contemporaries in the 1960s, Zak Ové selected mainly Black artists who have played a significant role in shaping the visual arts, music, dance, theatre and architecture in Britain and beyond. It was the first show of its kind to offer such a wide breadth of media across seven generations.
With myself as Ové’s curatorial assistant, we and the exhibitions team placed historic artworks, contemporary pieces and new commissions alongside letters, audio clips and films from personal archives, most of which had never been seen by the public before.
Get Up, Stand Up Now guided 18,522 visitors through explorations of migration, individual and collective aspirations for social change, the concept of a global Blackness, and the negotiation of geographical, psychological and social borders.
Reflecting on the exhibition, Ové was cheered to see Caribbean-born visitors of his father’s generation see their experiences of settling in 1960s Britain reflected in film, photographs and archival documents. For three months, their memories were visualised for their children and grandchildren, the grandeur and prestige of Somerset House according their stories importance and relevance.
By displaying the visual culture of a time period marked by inequality and struggle, the exhibition validated their entangled feelings of hope, disillusionment, empowerment, alienation and belonging.
The activism that thrived then and was reprised in the 1980s was reflected through artworks by Sonia Boyce, Pauline Black and Marlene Smith, acknowledging the female creative presence that has been historically under-represented in the distribution of accolades and in cultural spaces. Yinka Ilori Studio’s exhibition design of a bright colour palette and overlapping patterns applied onto Somerset House’s neoclassical rooms provided a gleeful backdrop for these artists’ work.
Horace Ové’s photographs of Trinidadian-born British Althea McNish, the first textile designer of African-Caribbean descent to achieve international recognition, were hung alongside vibrant samples of her fabrics. These were next to large works on canvas by Grenadian-born British artist Denzil Forrester and Tanzanian-born Lubaina Himid, their gestural brushstrokes and flashes of vivid colour adding to the energy of the gallery.
The volume of artists included in Get Up, Stand Up Now celebrated the multifaceted nature of Blackness. Bahamian-British Rhea Storr’s film A Protest, A Celebration, A Mixed Message (2018) underlined the importance of portraying Black bodies in rural spaces in her home of Yorkshire.
Ajamu X’s black and white photography, which explored same-sex desire, was frank in its questioning of how Black male bodies are regarded and analysed. Nigerian-born British artist Yinka Shonibare’s psychological take on the genre of self-portraiture in Self Portrait (after Warhol) 6 (2013) echoed the questions on representation in Hair Relaxer (2007-8) by African-American David Hammons.
In Hammons’ humorous and poignant work, kinky coils of Afro-hair are placed on a piece of furniture known as a recamier sofa (similar to a chaise longue). This afro hair is no longer a contested point, but a celebration of Black hair culture and personal self-definition.
A review of the exhibition in gal-dem, an independent online and print magazine produced by women of colour and non-binary people of colour, observed the nuanced expressions in Ové’s curation. What distinguished his exhibition from others on Black artists, in their words, is how he unified “the artists’ disparate messages without watering them down and, in turn, [gave] them their own agency”.
When asked to write these reflections on Get Up, Stand Up Now and consider the need for a Black British Museum, I was hesitant. To my mind the history of Horace Ové’s generation migrating to the UK from places such as Trinidad, which was then still a part of the British empire, does not uniquely come under “Black history”.
That migration story is one of postwar British recovery, the revitalisation of neighbourhoods such as London’s Notting Hill and the evolution of British rave and sound-system culture among other shared histories. All ethnicities must engage in that shared history.
If “Black history” continues to be set apart from “mainstream history”, the result is a gap in shared knowledge across different racial identities. Museums and galleries must address inadequacies or inaccuracies in their collections and programming to ensure people of African descent feel seen and are represented with sophistication and as full of potential as anyone else, not just during temporary exhibitions or Black History Month, but at all times.
Today, there is hunger for exhibitions and spaces that reflect the histories, experiences and artistic expressions of Black people. Out of about 400 surveys conducted after a visit to Get Up, Stand Up Now, 46.9% of visitors identified as Black or Black British, compared with an average of just 9.46% across all Somerset House events in 2019.
There is hunger for exhibitions that reflect Black experiences and artistic expressions
Get Up, Stand Up Now highlighted the need for a permanent venue and reference centre that can archive and exhibit the British experiences rooted in the Caribbean and Africa – with its content not crated up and returned to lenders after short periods.
When I asked Ové for his take on Get Up, Stand Up Now in relation to a museum of Black British culture, he shared his vision of an ever-growing repository of exhibitions giving the granularity that one summer show could not provide. They could perceivably focus on Black women’s experiences over the same time period, or what it was like to be a Black child in the 90s or 00s.
Where only a handful of the artists who paved the way for works reflecting Black LGBTQ+ experiences to be viewed in galleries were celebrated in Get Up, Stand Up Now, a focused space for such stories would more fully recognise the other unsung heroes of Black British culture.
And where Storr’s film gave audiences a glimpse into the experience of being Black only in Yorkshire, a dedicated repository would explore Black presence in other UK regions. This presence and creativity is currently being celebrated in Jadé Fadojutimi at The Hepworth Wakefield (7 April-25 September 2022) and Bristol Photo Festival: James Barnor – Ghanaian Modernist (until 31 October 2021).
In the same way that Abdu’Allah’s gilding and staging of a barber’s chair in such a majestic building made that one visitor feel part of a larger community, dedicated spaces for Black stories demonstrate that the lived experiences of those represented matter.