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Bright Colors, Dark Subjects: Hew Locke’s Disturbing Spectacle


LONDON — A recent morning, a cavernous studio in south London was a sight of ordered chaos. Elaborate headdresses covered several tables, a jumble of cardboard cut-out body parts lay piled on a pallet, and boxes overflowed with leopard-print fabrics, faux fur and showy faux jewelry. Sewing machines hummed and hammers clanked.

Hew Locke, a British-Guyanese artist renowned for his visually dazzling assemblages that explore global power structures and the legacy of colonialism drawing on symbols of sovereignty, from coats of arms and trophies to arms and public statuary, calmly overseeing the chaos.

As Locke watched, one assistant tied a plastic jumper to a life-size model horse and another cobbled together a dummy’s wheelchair; nearby, two towering cardboard figures in patchwork skirts were arranged to look like they were carrying a treasure chest. “They all have their little stories,” Locke said of the motley crowd of characters that filled the space.

Locke, 62, had created 140 of these human-sized figures, plus five horses, for a major sculpture commission at Tate Britain, which he envisioned as an exuberant cavalcade in the museum’s neoclassical central gallery. Conceived with sumptuous yet human-sized theatricality, the work, titled “The Procession” and on view until January 22, 2023, feels part religious spectacle, part carnival, part dance of death.

“The whole thing is like one huge poem,” Locke said in a pre-show interview. “There are a lot of very dark things: colonialism, history, politics. But that’s irrelevant,” he added. “The really important thing is that it has to look exciting. It has to look colorful. It doesn’t have to be boring.

The work is housed in the two large colonnaded halls flanking an octagonal hall that make up the Duveen Galleries, as the museum’s 300-foot spine is called. Since 2000, the museum group Tate has called on an artist each year to respond to the space.

Implicit in the invitation is the need for spectacle. Artist Fiona Banner memorably suspended a fighter jet here in 2010, and in 2014 Phyllida Barlow filled it with tottering structures, bursting containers and colossal piles of wood and debris to recreate the bustle and the danger of a commercial wharf.

“When I was asked, I was really excited,” Locke said. “And then the excitement turned into fear, because I saw this as a space that could eat up a career.”

In a 40-year practice devoted to themes of empire, globalization and migration, the Tate Britain exhibition is a milestone for Locke, who like many artists of color has long been excluded from prestigious museum orders here. Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, said in an interview that there were “intense ambiguities” in Locke’s flamboyant but disturbing procession. “I would say it ties into a Latin American and Caribbean idea of ​​magical realism, which is about the convergence of reality, history, myth, and fantasy,” he said. “It’s an updated magical realism, taking these ideas to new ground in the medium of installation art.”

“Hew is an incredible creator,” said Courtney J. Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, which will give Locke an exhibition in 2024. “I don’t think we talk enough about his talent and his talent. his know-how, his ability to put disparate objects together to make a coherent whole,” she added.

Locke had his first major breakthrough in 2000 with an installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum titled “Hemmed in Two,” a sprawling cardboard structure like a crumbling paddle steamer crossed with a Mughal palace. The multi-layered piece, covered in barcodes and shipping labels suggesting global trade routes, marked Locke’s adoption of cardboard as a staple of his practice. The material is still very present in “The Procession”, often left grossly old-fashioned.

“It seemed instinctive not to have everything perfect. I’m a big fan of meticulous blemishes,” Locke said.

Around 2002, he began producing perhaps his best-known series: sculptural reliefs of Queen Elizabeth teeming with bric-a-brac from second-hand goods, flowers and plastic toys. Locke said he wanted these works to be an exploration of ideas about Britishness and nationality. (In the interview, he declined to describe himself as a royalist or a republican.) Locke continued to expand on the theme, festooning cheap historical busts of the British royal family with fake gold and colonial war medals. to reflect the burden of history.

The baroque excess in Locke’s work often belies “the suggestion of anything sinister,” said Kobena Mercer, professor of art history and humanities at Bard College. “I think it’s inspired by the Caribbean aesthetic of the masquerade: what appears to be very jovial and festive is actually hiding something that is potentially threatening.”

Locke was born in Edinburgh in 1959 to a Guyanese father and an English mother, both artists. (He and his father, Donald Locke, are both featured in the “Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now.” exhibition, which runs concurrently at Tate Britain until April 3.) Locke’s family emigrated to Guyana in 1966 as a former Briton. colony gains independence. “I remember seeing the banknote being designed and seeing a country being born,” Locke said.

He remembers living through Guyana’s growing pains as the South American nation – a melting pot of Indians, Africans, Native Americans, Chinese and Europeans – became a cooperative republic, then a republic. socialist. Later, Venezuela backed an uprising in a disputed border area of ​​Guyana that it has long claimed. These formative experiences sparked a passion for international relations: if he hadn’t been an artist, Locke says, he would have been a historian or worked for the United Nations.

Locke returned to Britain in 1980 to study art, but Guyana’s vibrant culture had a lasting impact. “It’s an incredible country. If I don’t go there every few years, I get pretty weird in my head. I need it,” Locke said.

Around this time, artists of African and Asian descent were beginning to mobilize in Britain to empower black voices and challenge media stereotypes. Locke was not closely involved in what became known as the British Black Arts Movement, but his work became more political, he said, after hearing artists speaking while studying at the Falmouth School of Art, in Cornwall, in the south of England.

Locke then lived in a London squat, where he met his wife, Indra Khanna, an artist and curator. During the 1990s he completed an MA at the Royal College of Art and for a few years gave up color in his practice, which he said was to avoid misconceptions about his work as “exotic”. With the ascendancy of Conceptual art, Locke’s intricate designs of royal and rococo cardboard structures were on the wrong side of institutional trends, shifting in favor of Young British Artists.

Locke’s eclectic practice, by contrast, was decidedly international: a mix of pop culture, religion, art and global affairs, influenced, he says, by discussions with artists from Cuba, India and from China. He created a flotilla of suspended boats for the Pérez Art Museum in Miami; museum mannequins dressed aboard a former British Navy battlecruiser in carnival attire; and lavishly decorated photos of public statues of morally questionable dignitaries in the United States and Britain. The Tate installation picks up core elements of his work and has “a retrospective vibe”, Locke said.

The whole is underpinned by a mixture of digitally printed images on fabric in which the characters in the procession have been dressed. These images include photographs of Locke’s earlier artwork, as well as Beninese bronzes, decrepit Guyanese houses, colonial banknotes and sugarcane plantation workers (a reference to the sugar fortunes on which Tate has was founded, Locke said).

Images of outdated stock certificates that Locke painted on — such as a bond issued by the Confederate States of America or stock certificates for the Jamaican Trading Company and the owner of a Nigerian gold mine — appear on banners, flags and robes, illustrating the flows of money and power across lands and times.

But Locke’s characters are not just ghosts of history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is referenced in a figure dressed in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, who wears a replica of a Crimean War medal. Locke interweaves darkness with joy throughout the installation, he explained, because “we need elevation. I need to look at my work and not feel depressed.

Surveying the artwork installed at Tate Britain days before its March 22 opening, the artist himself seemed overwhelmed by its sheer scale. “That’s a hell of a job!” he said.

It was too much for him to handle alone, he added. Khanna, his wife, stepped in mid-stream to deal with supply hurdles she said had been caused by Brexit and the pandemic, and she helped recruit assistants via Zoom to bring the work together. “Without Indra, the project would not have happened,” Locke said.

In the gallery, there was no trace of these myriad production challenges, only the mind-blowing spectacle of the multitude. Drums, Spanish infantas and stilt walkers parade inexorably like a feverish apparition. Where are they going?

“In the future,” Locke said. “I could almost see them walking all over the place and disappearing beyond that doorway, just dematerializing into something else.”

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