5 Questions for Zak Ové: How James Baldwin Created an Artist

Image Courtesy of the Artist.

While most people have learned of James Baldwin through books they’ve read, artist Zak Ové got a slightly more personal introduction to the legendary writer and civil rights activist. Timed with his exhibition The Evidence of Things Not Seen, at De Buck Gallery Saint-Paul de Vence, the artist sits down with us to discuss his personal relationship with Baldwin and how it influenced this latest body of work. The show coincides with La Maison Baldwin’s 2022 International Conference on James Baldwin in Nice, and the gallery will host a panel discussion on Saturday, June 18 featuring Ové and others who personally knew Baldwin from his days in Saint-Paul de Vence where Baldwin spent the last 17 years of his life.

Jimmy was on my mind whilst I made this body of work.

In our discussion, Ové reminisces about his childhood and the influences surrounding him. His father is British filmmaker Horace Ové who is credited with being the first Black British filmmaker to direct a feature film with his 1976 film Pressure and who was this year awarded an Order of the British Empire for his contributions to media. Horace and Ové’s stepmother, Annabelle Alcazar, were both close friends with Baldwin after Horace met and filmed Baldwin giving a talk at the West Indian Student Centre in London. The end result was one of the filmmaker’s greatest documentaries and it spawned a life-long camaraderie between them. Baldwin was henceforth a constant figure in Zak Ové’s life.

From a child’s perspective, Baldwin was a fantastical, charismatic giant with a smile that drew in any fortunate recipient. In the times that artists, writers, and activists would talk late into the night, the young Ové was close by, listening out of sight in order to be a part of the thrill and take in the exuberant language that flowed from Baldwin’s tongue. His influence carries on today in many ways for many people, but for Ové, “Uncle Jimmy” holds a very intimate space in his works. “Jimmy was on my mind whilst I made this body of work,” said Ové. For his part, Ové noted that he carried on Baldwin’s core values by celebrating and creating his own identity and voice as an artist.

“I find my freedom in being the best of how I can be, and in surpassing those constraints that society has placed upon me, and those like me,” he said. “Of going beyond, as Jimmy said, ‘(the) conundrum of trying to define oneself in a hostile territory’ to ‘get beyond the brutal definitions which your country imposes on you’.”

Read on to gain insights into what “Uncle Jimmy” taught Zak Ové about the worlds of art and politics.

De Buck Gallery: James Baldwin was very influential to a lot of people. How was your experience different from that of anyone else who was influenced by him?

Zak Ové: Well, I think the difference is, most people that are influenced by James Baldwin have sat in a classroom reading book after book after book in a very different context than my own. My own influence was from a family member in the home and I think what was fascinating was it took me a long time—into my adulthood—to realize the power of the individual that had been there in that moment that you don’t necessarily see in the same gaze as other people because it’s somebody whose already close to you.

My mother had been a big speaker for the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party and my parents had a commitment within the home to set up political meetings, artistic meetings, I mean, kind of before digitization, it was an interesting way that you could keep court—do high teas and things like that as a means to meet and integrate with other thinkers, writers, and artists. The writers’ network in the UK was a sea of Black faces that were working with independent publishers. You had things like the London Radical Bookfair. Literature, as well as the arts and even things like publishing were still a kind of homegrown asset, if you like, for people that were trying to make left-of-field writing or radical bookmaking or literature about indigenous lives in Africa, the Caribbean, or the United States. You had to find a way to do things outside of the norm, and it was that sense of sharing those moments that led to the kind of discussions that were taking place. So my influence was very much by way of being, literally, by being in that particular moment.

DBG: What is your most memorable moment with Baldwin?

ZO: I think my greatest important moment was escorting him to the [1987] theatrical production of The Amen Corner at the Tricycle Theater (now called Kiln Theater) in Kilburn. It was opening night. I got to sit next to him. It was this big event, but now in retrospect, a huge event because they have a bronze of James outside the actual theater to mark that particular day and that particular production because he was the most important person ever to have walked through their doors. But I have to be honest with you. If I think back to the moment, it wasn’t that dissimilar to much else that was happening. He lived quite a regular existence up until that point in terms of you know your everyday tos-and-fros. I mean, the thing that was always fascinating for me was that he was always very, very opinionated. He was very much a giant in a room full of huge men. Often, he really took everybody’s attention in that sense.

DBG: James Baldwin spent the last 17 years of his life in Saint-Paul de Vence. Why did he come to France?

ZO: He decided to leave for fear of an assassination. As I understood it, from him, in our “Uncle’s” moments staying up late, listening to him, James had been asked to write the script of the feature film for the story of Malcolm X at that point in time in Hollywood. And there was a situation going on that he didn’t understand entirely and apparently he broke into the studio to find a copy of his script that had been rewritten without his knowledge and this was at a point where there were already assassination attempts. But the script had been re-written to change the story of Malcolm and there was already a contract in place for an actor to play him. It’s a rewrite that would have changed the history of Malcolm. And they were thinking that the film would outlast any other story of Malcolm. It seemed like quite a serious issue.

I think it was the things in play—it was the end of the McCarthy era in America, had been a very persistent moment. The CIA and other forces were very very stern in shutting down any kind of social insurrections or anything that looked anti-the-US-platform. At that point in time with things like Vietnam and other situations arising like the Korean War, communism was something that was very feared. Obviously a lot of these writers were attached to socialist workers groups who feared for maybe not communism but socialism at that time, which is the kind of people’s politics of the day, and anti-American. So it seemed like there was a set of people that had to disappear. On arriving in France there were also the other writers from the United States that were there to join him. I think it was quite an alienating moment for a lot of them because, suddenly, although they were safe and secure away from the United States, the displacement was that you were no longer amidst your community to be able to see firsthand what those changes might be.

DBG: How can we see the influence of Baldwin in your work as an artist?

ZO:   I think with somebody like that, one who is able to instill in you as a child your own sense of greatness—to have that kind of kind of confidence instilled in you, and then later in life to discover that the same individual has managed to do that however million times over with so many other people through his work is a great thing. It’s very much the case with my work. I think, you know, I’m very lucky and when I wanted to start working in the arts, it was very much on the back of the experiences of Black people like him and my father. I mean the reason I took to curating the exhibition, “Get Up, Stand Up Now” [at Somerset House], was because I was so frustrated that so many of our generation hadn’t had a chance to really have a voice.

DBG: Your father, Horace Ové, will be knighted on June 24, 2022 for his services to media. Among his noteworthy films is his 1976 film Pressure, and a 1969 documentary that features Baldwin giving a lecture on the Civil Rights Movement and in conversation with comedian and author Dick Gregory. Why is this moment in your father’s career important to you?

ZO: You know, the frustration is, really that he’s receiving a Knighthood for a work he made in 1975. What’s brilliant is, hopefully, any young practitioner can look at James and Horace as extraordinary examples. As like, ‘Look—whatever you do does eventually penetrate and if you do it well enough, it will have resonance. Whether or not you see the reward from that in your own life is another thing but I don’t think you set out to make the work in the first place for that reward…So the fact that your work is perceived in the end is just reward and I think they’d both be extremely thrilled to know that their legacy that their effort etc. has had the kind of impact that has come back for generations to come. Things like this are important, they keep their legacies alive and keep their voices alive, and fundamentally their politics alive, which is what they were aiming for.

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