LONDON — On a recent morning, a cavernous studio in South London was a view of ordered chaos. Elaborate headdresses covered several tables, a jumble of cardboard cut-out body parts piled on a palette and boxes full of leopard-print fabrics, faux fur, and gaudy fake jewelry. Sewing machines buzzed and hammers slammed.
A British-Guyanese artist who calmly oversaw the chaos, Hew Locke was known for his visually dazzling assemblages that explore global power structures and the legacy of colonialism by fraying for symbols of sovereignty, from coats of arms and trophies to weapons and public statuary. .
As Locke watched, an assistant attached a plastic rider to a life-size model horse, and another tinkered with a mannequin’s wheelchair; nearby, two imposing cardboard figures in patchwork skirts were arranged so as to appear to be carrying a treasure chest. “They all have their stories,” Locke said of the motley crew of figures that filled the room.
Locke, 62, had created 140 of these human figures, plus five horses, for a major sculpture commission at Tate Britain, which he envisioned as a lavish procession along the museum’s neoclassical central gallery. Designed with lavish theatricality, but on a human scale, the work, dubbed “The Procession” and on display until January 22, 2023, feels part religious, part carnival, part danse macabre.
“The whole thing is like a huge poem,” Locke said in an interview prior to the show. “There’s a lot of very dark stuff: colonialism, history, politics. But that’s irrelevant,” he added. “The most important thing is that it should look exciting. It should look colorful. It shouldn’t be boring.”
The work is installed in the two large colonnaded halls on either side of an octagonal room that is part of the Duveen Galleries, as the museum’s 300-foot spine is known. Every year since 2000, the Tate museum group has commissioned an artist to respond to the space.
Implicit in the invitation is the need for spectacle. Artist Fiona Banner memorably hung a fighter jet there in 2010, and in 2014 Phyllida Barlow filled it with tottering structures, bursting containers and hulking piles of wood and rubble to mimic the bustle and danger of a commercial dock.
“When I was asked, I was very excited,” Locke said. “And then the excitement turned to fear, because I saw this as a space that could eat up a career.”
In a 40-year practice dealing with themes of empire, globalization and migration, the exhibition at Tate Britain is a milestone for Locke, who, like many artists of color, was long barred from prestigious museum commissions here. Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, said in an interview that there were “intense ambiguities” in Locke’s flamboyant but disturbing procession. “I’d say this is related to a Latin American, Caribbean idea of magical realism, which is about the convergence of reality, history, myth and the imaginary,” he said. “It’s an updated magical realism, taking these ideas into new territory 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 Locke will put on a show in 2024. “I don’t think we talk enough about his skills and his craftsmanship, his ability to put disparate objects together into a cohesive whole,” she added.
Locke got his first big break in 2000 with an installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum entitled ‘Hemmed in Two’, a sprawling cardboard structure like a ruined paddle steamer crisscrossed by a Mughal palace. Covered in barcodes and shipping labels suggesting global trade routes, the multi-layered piece marked Locke’s embrace of cardboard as a staple of his practice. The material still plays a big part in ‘The Procession’, often left rough.
“It seemed instinctive not to have everything perfect. I’m a big fan of minute imperfection,” said Locke.
Around 2002, he began producing perhaps his best-known series: sculptural reliefs of Queen Elizabeth filled with flea markets and plastic flowers and toys. Locke said he wanted those works to be an exploration of ideas about Britishness and nationhood. (In the interview, he declined to describe himself as a royalist or a republican.) Locke has continued to develop the theme, decorating inexpensive historical busts of British royals 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 something sinister,” said Kobena Mercer, a professor of art history and humanities at Bard College. “I think this is informed by the Caribbean aesthetic of masquerade: what seems very jovial and festive is in fact hiding something 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.” exhibit, which runs concurrently at Tate Britain through April 3.) Locke’s family emigrated to Britain in 1966. Guyana as the former British colony became independent. “I remember seeing the banknote being designed and a country being born,” Locke said.
He recalled going through Guyana’s growing pains as the South American nation—a melting pot of Indians, Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans—became a cooperative republic and then a socialist republic. Later, Venezuela supported an uprising in a disputed border area of Guyana that it has long claimed. These formative experiences fueled a passion for international relations: If he wasn’t an artist, Locke said, 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 a great country. If I don’t go there every few years, I’m going to go crazy in my head. I need it,” Locke said.
Around that time, artists of African and Asian descent began to mobilize in Britain to amplify black voices and challenge media stereotypes. Locke was not heavily involved in what came to be known as the British Black Arts Movement, but his work became more political, he said, after hearing artists speak while he was studying at Falmouth School of Art, in Cornwall, southern England.
Locke later lived in a squat in London where he met his wife, Indra Khanna, an artist and curator. In the 1990s, he obtained a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art and for several years renounced color in his practice, which he believes was intended to avoid clichéd interpretations of his work as ‘exotic’. With the advance of conceptual art, Locke’s intricate drawings of royals and rococo cardboard structures were on the wrong side of institutional trends, which were skipped in favor of the Young British Artists.
Locke’s eclectic practice, by contrast, was decidedly international: a mishmash of pop culture, religion, art and world affairs, influenced, he said, by conversations with artists from Cuba, India and China. He has created a floating fleet of boats for the Pérez Art Museum in Miami; dressed museum mannequins aboard a former British naval battlecruiser in carnival outfits; and ornately decorated photographs of public statues representing morally dubious dignitaries in the United States and Britain. Tate’s installation revisits the core of his body of work and has “a retrospective atmosphere,” Locke said.
The whole is supported by a hodgepodge of images digitally printed on fabric in which the figures of the procession are dressed. These images include photos of Locke’s earlier artwork, as well as Benin bronzes, dilapidated Guyanese homes, colonial notes and sugar plantation workers (a reference to the sugar fortune Tate was founded on, Locke said).
Images of outdated stock certificates that Locke painted — 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 flows of money and power across regions and eras.
But Locke’s figures are not only phantoms of history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is referenced in a figure dressed in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, who carries a replica of a Crimean War medal. Locke punctuated darkness with joy during the installation, he explained, because “we need upliftment. I need to look at my work and not feel depressed.”
When surveying the installed work at Tate Britain a few days before its opening on March 22, the artist himself seemed overwhelmed by its sheer scale. “This is a hell of a lot of work!” he said.
It had been too much for him to do it alone, he added. Khanna, his wife, intervened midway to address the supply barriers she said had been caused by Brexit and the pandemic, and helped recruit assistants through Zoom to bring the work together. “Without Indra, the project wouldn’t have happened,” Locke said.
In the gallery there was no trace of these myriad production challenges, only the hallucinatory spectacle of the crowd. Drummer boys, Spanish infantas and stilt walkers all march inexorably on as a feverish apparition. Where are they going?
“Into the future,” Locke said. “I could almost see them walking all over the place and disappearing behind that door, just dematerializing into something else.”