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The Mothership Connection

Zak Ové 

Frieze Sculpture, Regent’s Park, London, 20 September – 29 October 2023

Review by Franklin Nelson


If you make your way to the south-eastern corner of Regent’s Park in London, you will find yourself in a miniature sculpture park. Dotted among the trees, plants and pathways of the English Gardens are 20 artworks of varying sizes and made of various materials. Taken together, they mark the latest edition of Frieze Sculpture, which coincides with the bigger Frieze London art fair in October.

This part of the 410-acre royal park might be known as the English Gardens, but the works it is hosting for Frieze Sculpture 2023 are by an international set of creators. They include the British-Nigerian Royal Academician Yinka Shonibare; the late Louise Nevelson, born in 1899 in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, who later migrated to the United States; and Leilah Babirye, who fled her native Uganda for New York City in 2015 after being outed as an underground LGBTQ+ activist in the local press. 

Zak Ové’s The Mothership Connection is one of the works on show which opens out to an international history. Indeed, this sculpture actively nods to pasts both known and obscured – including by the referencing of funk band Parliament’s 1975 Afrofuturist album, Mothership Connection. Towering at more than nine metres high, the futuristic spaceship-cum-totem pole made of stainless steel and acrylic is a welcome blaze of colour and a riot of shapes, especially on a day of grey skies and pelting rain. 

From the base, where taut orange-pink flames lick upwards, to the vivid, red-helmeted head, inspired by the female Mende mask, which in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone endows the women who wear it with spiritual power, the work captures and compels the eye. On the way up, there are squares, cuboids, triangles, rectangles and arches. The latter nod to the arches of the Capitol Building in Washington DC – one of many landmark Western constructions that were ‘built by the hands of enslaved and indentured labourers’, as Ové notes. And, last but not least, there are layers of lightbulbs, which mean that evening is arguably the best time to pass by. 

When we meet in a nearby café to escape the rain, soon after the opening of Frieze Sculpture, Ové admits that creating the work was ‘an experimental process … quite technical and challenging’. After taking almost a year to make – for a sculpture park in Hawaii – it was ‘shut in a box’ for three years because of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the rocket now stands thousands of miles away from its intended launch site, there is something special about a work inspired by the emancipatory energy and ethos of carnival having its first public showing a few miles away from Notting Hill, home of the largest iteration of the carnival form outside of the Americas. 

Indeed, Ové traces the origins of his practice back to researching carnival’s tradition of ‘old mas’, which ‘speaks about history and resistance and Africanist culture’. ‘Here was this incredible art form that hadn’t been looked at by galleries as a real art form, and for me what was interesting … looking at old mas was a bit like seeing the Wizard of Oz when he comes out from behind the curtain and is covered in dust. You realise that he needs new stuff, he needs re-contemporising, he needs new superpowers,’ says Ové.

On the same weekend that The Mothership Connection was installed, Zak’s father Horace, who is widely considered the father of black British cinema, passed away. For Ové junior – who worked as an assistant to his father before carving out his own practice via trips to document carnival in Trinidad — the past few days have been ‘really cathartic’ in the wake of the loss of his ‘psychedelic brother’. 

‘I’ll always see traces of him in me; fruit don’t fall far from tree,’ reflects Ové, noting that he ‘very much’ bears the imprint of his father ‘and the village he introduced me to, which became my family, in Ladbroke Grove and beyond’.

‘What I will take from him always is his resilience, his fearlessness, his sense of urgency when it came to questioning injustices and inequalities, his sense of championing the smaller man in the face of the bigger establishment, and his generosity,’ adds Ové. 

This year marks half a century since Horace Ové began making Pressure, the first black British feature film. Next month, the British Film Institute, which funded the film but barred its release until 1976 owing to its depictions of police brutality, will launch a retrospective season in his honour.

For Zak, Pressure aimed to ‘establish a baseline for black British kids to have an understanding of who they were in that moment, so they might grow with some pride … in a country in which they were still alienated’. More broadly, ‘Horace and his peer group made a lifetime of tackling … the invisibility of their histories.’ In its vivid and alluring layering of different diasporic cultures and symbols, and in its embrace of futurity as well as the past, The Mothership Connection impressively continues that work.