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Horace Ové

Born, 1939 in Trindad and Tobago

Horace Ové must be considered a pioneering figure of Black British photography and the leading force in Black British cinema who continues his groundbreaking and influential work as a writer, sometime actor, producer, photographer and director. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1939 and came to London as a young man. Over the course of the 1970s, Ové became known as one of a small number of the leading Black independent film-makers to emerge in Britain. He is widely respected for his pioneering and ground-breaking work as a director of films such as Pressure. Made in 1975, the film tackles the issues that came to shape and influence the lives of a new generation of black Britons. A timely, engaging and deeply empathetic work, Pressure was, and remains, a gritty and dynamic study of a generation in crisis.

Pressure has the distinction of being the first feature length Black British film. The film tells the story of a frustrated and ill at ease Black British youngster named Tony. His parents, hard working, respectable folk, run a corner shop, having come to London as immigrants from Trinidad. British-born Tony struggles with his coming of age. He finds that his aptitude, and good school education will not necessarily lead him into the world of decent employment, due to potential employers’ racial hostility and indifference. In many ways Pressure is a film about unfulfilled expectations and the fractious business of trying to reconcile one’s Blackness to one’s Britishness, whilst simultaneously navigating peer pressure and generational conflict. Tony’s brother Colin, has adopted the mantle of Black Power and is scornful of Tony’s ‘British’ tastes in music and his aspirations to live an Anglicized existence. Into the volatile, frustrating mix that is Tony’s life are added his attempts to keep up with his more cynical streetwise friends, and stay on the right side of his parents, whose disappointment in him (and subsequent disappointment in their own lives) become clearly evident. Pressure is a grim film and there is certainly no happy ending. There is instead a depressing and downbeat drifting off the film, as it reaches its grim, joyless finality. It’s almost as if there can ultimately be no resolution to the struggles faced by the Tonys whose existence marked the arrival of a new generation. The London in which the film is set is frequently portrayed as a cynical, aggressive, miserable place, complete with racist and cynical police, and a lack of sympathy at every turn.

Baldwin’s Nigger, was another, though very different, film made by Horace Ové. A documentary shot in minimal, verite style, Baldwin’s Nigger is a deceptively simple yet profoundly powerful film that takes a direct-and-simple-as-can-be approach to American writer, novelist and activist James Baldwin, as he addresses a group of ‘West Indian’ and Black students in London in the late 1960s, when he was in his mid 40s. At the time of the film’s making, Baldwin already had a colossal and enduring body of work behind him and had established a reputation as one of America’s most serious, relevant, creative and challenging writers of the 20th century. The late 60s were a period of great turbulence in American society and politics. The war in Vietnam was growing evermore nightmarish for the people of Vietnam and America, Dr. King’s assassination marked, in some ways, the ending of a dream and elsewhere in America, conditions were ripe for the emergence of a new and different type of Black activists – the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Within Baldwin’s Nigger, Baldwin is in fine form, as he waxes lyrical, with incredible passion, on the plight, the experiences of Black America, and the twisted and perverted nature of American racism and its assorted legacies and manifestations. A serious film, a film of great urgency and a film, in its stark black-and-whiteness, that still has an enduring relevance.

Dream to Change the World is another Horace Ové film. Another documentary it is a celebration and an exploration of the life of Ové’s fellow Trinidadian John La Rose. La Rose was a writer, an activist, a publisher and a formidable champion of the right of Black people in Britain to live fulfilling lives free from poverty, failure and torment. One of the leading figures of the legendary Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), La Rose, who was involved in innumerable initiatives from his base at New Beacon Books, a bookshop he established in north London, died in 2006, a couple of years after this film was made. Within the film we hear from the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, for whom La Rose was an inspiration and a mentor. In many ways, this documentary is not just a look at John La Rose. It is instead a sympathetic and multilayered exploration of the development of, and the challenges faced by, Britain’s Black community as it puts down permanent and intertwined roots. The film gives us insights into the struggles facing Black Britain, as it sought to rise above a host of formidable obstacles.

Playing Away is yet another of Horace Ové’s films. Made in 1986, the film, a comedy, was written by noted and accomplished British writer, Caryl Phillips. Playing Away tells the story of what happens when conflicting notions of Britishness, or conflicting experiences of Britishness come into close contact with each other, during the course of a cricket match in a picturesque and stereotypically English village. The visiting team, a motley crew of Caribbean-Britishers of assorted backgrounds, do battle, in more ways than one, with a very White, very ‘English’ host team. There are, at every turn, comic misunderstandings, based on often earnest and worthy assumptions, by the hosts and by their transplanted streetwise visitors. Rural England meets urban England, in this comedy of errors. Cricket itself has from time to time been explored for the ways in which this most English and class-ridden of games impacted and manifested itself amongst the darker peoples of the world, particularly those of the Caribbean. Most notably in this respect is the seminal work by C L R James, Beyond a Boundary. Playing Away adds both meaning and understanding to the racial legacy of cricket, and to the uneasy co-existence of conflictions notions and experiences of Britishness/Englishness.

Ové was responsible for the most compelling documentation of the development of a uniquely British element of African diasporic cultural identity. He photographed Samuel Selvon, Andrew Salkey and John La Rose, the founding members of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement. He also photographed the birth and development of the Notting Hill Carnival and the growing importance of reggae music to British youth. Like others before and alongside him, we see in Ové’s work copious and fascinating evidence of the clothing styles of Black Britain from the 1960s onwards.

In recent times, Ové photographed Chris Ofili, in his studio in Trinidad. One such portrait accompanied a feature on Ofili in the Guardian Weekend magazine, during the time of Ofili’s mid-career retrospective at the Tate Britain.

Related items + view all 9

click to show details of Back to Black - catalogue

»  Back to Black - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2005

click to show details of How Sweet It Was

»  How Sweet It Was

Article relating to an exhibition, 2005

click to show details of Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové

»  Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2004

click to show details of Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové - invite card

»  Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové - invite card

Invite relating to an exhibition, 2004

click to show details of Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové - invite card

»  Pressure | Photographs by Horace Ové - invite card

Invite relating to an exhibition, 2004

Related exhibitions

Related venues + view all 6

»  The New Art Gallery Walsall

Walsall, United Kingdom

»  Norwich Gallery

Norwich, United Kingdom

»  Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Nottingham, United Kingdom

»  University of Brighton Gallery

Brighton, United Kingdom

»  Whitechapel Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom