Artist, filmmaker, photographer & curator Zak Ove On the art of creating culture on your own terms

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Portrait by Ric Bower

Zak Ové is a multimedia artist, filmmaker, photographer and curator whose work explores personal history and the Caribbean diaspora. He curated the 2019 show Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers at Somerset House, London. His art has been shown at Frieze Art Fair, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Ford Foundation, New York and the British Museum. He created music videos for Patra and 2Pac, as well as Guinness ads that broke all the rules. 


Sascha Behrendt: Hi Zak. I just watched the amazing 1978 skateboarding doc Hot Wheels n Big Deals with you in it as a nine-year old. It’s very cool.

Zak Ové: Yeah, that’s a throwback. My friend Manny, took me in 1976, to the London South Bank, an early skateboarding spot. We both got picked up to star in that film. Some of the things often missed about the skate world are the unconscious intuition, timing and social aspects brought such a variance of characters together. People talk about the sport, but I was also interested in the ethos and the collaboration of characters that you see.

A lot of my art today is looking at invisible histories and making them visible, because if they are neglected for too long, they disappear

SB: Is there an interconnectivity for you between skateboarding, creativity and business?

ZO: I think from the skate world came an understanding of how to do things yourself, to work in a way outside of the system. Most had rejected school, and there was a punk influence going on too. Wanting to design a future that was completely on your own terms. Having the chance so young to be in that film bolstered my confidence to believe in the choices I was making. 

A lot of those skaters were quite maverick characters. Jeremy Henderson, who was one of the better American skateboarders, and became the biggest influence on the New York skate scene. From that community came the skateboard clothing brand Supreme. These were really out-there guys, often getting into trouble. I mean, wild as fuck.

I’ll never forget telling Horace [Ové], my dad, who was a radical filmmaker, “You guys ain't radical. You don't even know the meaning of the word. Skateboarding is radical, come on!” Horace was working on the BBC television series, World About Us and he told them, “Have you seen what these kids are doing on skateboards? There's an amazing scene happening right now, in Dogtown, LA”. 

He had the kind of producer then that meant fourteen days later he was on a plane to film Skateboard Kings [1978]. Nick Broomfield was his assistant and Nick's wife, Joan Churchill – a master at handheld super 16mm – shot it. 

But picture it, my dad in a kaftan, big Afro, African charms and jewellery, looking like the head of the Black Power movement approaching sixteen year-old hippie kids in LA, who were skate superstars in that moment. And yet, when you watch the film, you can’t imagine who the director was.

People never thought skateboarding would change culture in society the way it did. Look at Vans – a huge brand, which everyone now takes for granted.

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Still from Hot Wheels n Big Deals (1978)


SB: What else was a key early influence?

ZO: My mum was a big influence in terms of whatever I was going to do. She taught me that you needed to be organised and structured, as well as talented in order to really manifest a career. She was extremely hard working, and had worked since fifteen in the fashion industry till she set up her own business. She also became a key and  outspoken figure in the Communist and Socialist Workers Party movement. Originally, she wanted to become a nun, and then became very radicalised.


SB: Wow.

So how did your own career start out?

ZO: I played percussion on three tracks in the hugely successful Soul II Soul album, Club Classics Vol.One, with the track African Dance winning a Grammy. This brought me a lot of contacts in addition to my creative community local to me in Camden Town, that included people like the artist Hassan Hajjaj. And through these scenes I got involved in music – playing initially, but then photography, and eventually music videos. I shot a lot of album covers in the UK and then went on to New York, doing music videos for six years.

I was hired by an American production company to be their Black film director from Europe working in New York. That was an amazing moment. I had more success in New York than I could ever have imagined, it was fantastic. I returned to the UK  because my mother was sick with cancer, and eventually passed away.

Zak Ove Guinness Ads Scratch Lee Perry v2
Lee Scratch Perry, Guinness TV commercial still; courtesy Zak Ové & Jay Pond-Jones


SB: You then had to find a way to secure your creative work financially, so you went into the commercial and advertising field, but you still always took risks. An example being your Guinness ads with infamous reggae artist Lee Scratch Perry. 

 ZO: I thought I was really at my peak then. I worked with Jay Pond-Jones and Tom Wnek who were the top creatives in London at that time. Jay had just done the infamous ‘FCUK’ campaign for UK fashion brand French Connection. Tom wanted to do a campaign for Guinness in Ireland with Lee Scratch Perry, though he was a renowned madman in many respects. Jay and Tom weren't sure how they were going to be able to work with him because of his outlandish behaviour. Weed everywhere he went. He’s quite out there and psychedelic. 

I had just directed the video for Murder, She Wrote and the Patra video with 2Pac and Yo-Yo in Jamaica, so they knew my work and understood that I had a relationship with Jamaican musicians that might help them. So it was a collaboration in that sense, and they liked the ideas I brought. They would pitch me their thoughts, and I would try and really work on what and how it might translate with him in the landscape of Ireland. Lee Scratch Perry’s opinions on alien abduction, on the IMF, on world peace [laughs]. It was fun.

If music is spaces and beats, then that has to work in the same way with visual composition

SB: It was a highly unusual campaign.

ZO: And it was a good project to shift from commercials into fine art.


SB: Changing the subject, what role has music played in relation to your creative practice?

ZO: I think there's a massive connection between music and art-making. In conversations I would have with Horace, we would talk for instance how to embody in an artwork, statue, or figurine the same resonance that you might get from a great piece of Black music. Blues, or whatever it is, carries you to an emotive place in such a short space of time that it might make you cry, or sing, or laugh. How do you do that in sculpture or a painting?

You know, the idea that if music is spaces and beats, then that has to work in the same way with visual composition. When I studied photography from Horace, he always made me use a wide-angle lens, because it put the emphasis on how you use the rest of the picture around your subject matter to illustrate their situation — their mood, their emotion, their circumstance, and their history. I'm interested in narrative in art.

I like to develop characters that have stories in my practice, and those stories often relate to moments in history that I'm interested in.

1 Zak Ove Gallery 1957 Frieze Sept 2023 medium res
'The Mothership Connection' (2021); Courtesy Zak Ové and Gallery 1957


SB: What history is that?

ZO: I started travelling annually to Trinidad to document the island’s carnival, traditions and makers because I was interested in bridging my own history back in the Caribbean, exploring its mythologies, and how they had been upheld. Understanding their importance to communities living at a distance from their roots of origin in Africa.

During this time, I had the epiphany that new materials were vital for contemporary stories, conversations, and references to keep old world mythologies alive. 

They have to keep up with the spaces we are in today. I was fascinated by how we move to the future with our ancestors, not without them. My art today involves looking at invisible histories and making them visible, because if they are neglected for too long, they are erased. 

That epiphany led me to what I do today with sculpture and my art practice. Trinidad became my fundamental base. It was a great period, with a community of talented artists living there. 

It was difficult shifting to art as a career and business, and for a long time I didn't really understand how the gallery world worked, even though I'd been to art school. So it was interesting learning how to present my ideas within a museum context, and then also commercially. 

I always feel a piece of work is good for me when I like it a lot, and I'm excited to share it. And I make that decision wholly with the confidence that if I do, other people will too. Why wouldn’t they?



Stay up to date with Zak's work by following @zakove

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