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Light colors, dark motifs: Hew Locke’s disturbing pageant

LONDON – On a recent morning, a cavernous studio in south London was a glimpse of orderly chaos. Elaborate headgear covered several tables, a jumble of cardboard body parts lay stacked on a pallet, and boxes were overflowing with leopard-print fabrics, faux fur, and garish faux jewelry. Sewing machines whirred and hammers banged.

Hew Locke, a British-Guyanese artist known for his visually dazzling assemblages that explore global power structures and the legacy of colonialism by examining symbols of sovereignty, from coats of arms and trophies to weapons and public statues, oversaw this chaos calm.

While Locke watched, one assistant attached a plastic rider to a life-size model horse and another tinkered with a mannequin’s wheelchair; Nearby, two imposing cardboard cutouts in patchwork skirts were arranged to appear as if they were hauling a treasure chest. “They all have their little stories,” Locke said of the motley crowd of characters that filled the room.

Locke, 62, had created 140 of these human-sized figures plus five horses for a major sculpting commission at Tate Britain, which he envisioned as a rollicking cavalcade through the museum’s neoclassical central gallery. Conceived with lavish theatrics but on a human level, the work, titled The Procession and on view until January 22nd, 2023, feels part religious pageant, part carnival, part danse macabre.

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

The work is installed in the two large columned halls flanking an octagonal room that make up the Duveen Galleries, as the museum’s 300-foot spine is known. Each year since 2000, the Tate Museum Group has commissioned an artist to respond to the space.

Inherent in the invitation is the need for spectacle. Artist Fiona Banner hung a fighter jet there in 2010 and filled it with rickety structures, bursting containers and colossal piles of wood and rubble by Phyllida Barlow in 2014 to recreate the frenzy and danger of a commercial dock.

“When I was asked, I was really 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 exploring themes of empire, globalization and migration, the exhibition at Tate Britain is a milestone for Locke, who, like many other 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 extravagant but disturbing procession. “I would say that this ties into a Latin American, Caribbean idea of ​​magical realism, which is about the convergence of reality, history, myth and imagination,” he said. “It’s an updated magical realism that takes these ideas to new territory in the medium of installation art.”

“Hew is an incredible maker,” said Courtney J. Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, which will host an exhibition for Locke in 2024. “I think we’re not talking enough about his skill and craftsmanship, his ability to put disparate objects together into a cohesive whole,” she added.

Locke had his first major breakthrough in 2000 with an installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Hemmed in Two, a sprawling cardboard structure resembling a wrecked paddle steamer traversed by a Mughal palace. Covered in barcodes and shipping labels suggesting global trade routes, the multi-layered piece marks Locke’s embrace of cardboard as a cornerstone of his practice. Material still plays a big part in The Procession, often left grossly unfashionable.

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

Around 2002 he began producing what is perhaps his best-known series: sculptural reliefs of Queen Elizabeth filled with flea market bric-a-brac, plastic flowers and toys. Locke said he intended these works to be an exploration of ideas about Britishness and nationality. (In the interview, he declined to describe himself as a Royalist or Republican.) Locke has taken the theme further, adorning cheap historical busts of British royalty with fake gold and Colonial War medals to reflect on the burden of history.

The baroque excess in Locke’s work often belies “the suggestion of something sinister,” said Kobena Mercer, professor of art history and humanities at Bard College. “I think that draws from the Caribbean aesthetic of masquerade: what appears very joyful and festive actually hides something that may pose a potential threat.”

Locke was born in Edinburgh in 1959 to a Guyanese father and an English mother, both of whom were artists. (He and his father, Donald Locke, are both in the exhibition “Life Between the Islands: Caribbean-British Art of the 1950s – Now., which runs concurrently at Tate Britain until April 3.) Locke’s family immigrated to Guyana in 1966 when the former British colony gained independence. “I remember how the bill was designed and how a country was born,” Locke said.

He recalled 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 and then a socialist republic. Venezuela later supported an insurgency in a disputed border area of ​​Guyana that it has long claimed. These formative experiences ignited a passion for international relations: if he were not an artist, Locke said, he would have become a historian or worked for the United Nations.

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

It was around this time that artists of African and Asian descent began mobilizing in Britain to empower black voices and challenge media stereotypes. Locke wasn’t closely associated with what became known as the British Black Arts Movement, but his work became more political, he said after listening to artists speak while he was studying at Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall, southern England.

Locke later lived in a London squat where he met his wife Indra Khanna, an artist and curator. In the 1990s he earned a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art and for a number of years avoided color in his practice to avoid stereotypical misinterpretation of his work as ‘exotic’. With the rise of conceptual art, Locke’s intricate drawings of royals and rococo cardboard structures were on the wrong side of institutional trends, being passed over in favor of the Young British Artists.

In contrast, Locke’s eclectic practice was decidedly international: a blend of pop culture, religion, art, and world affairs, influenced, he said, by conversations with artists from Cuba, India, and China. For the Pérez Art Museum in Miami he has created a floating flotilla of boats; dressed museum dolls aboard a former British Navy battlecruiser in carnivalesque outfits; and ornate photos of public statues depicting morally dubious dignitaries in the United States and Britain. The Tate installation reiterates core strands of his oeuvre and has “a retrospective vibe,” Locke said.

All of this is underpinned by a mix of images digitally printed onto fabric in which the figures in the procession were clothed. These images include photographs of Locke’s earlier artworks, as well as Benin bronzes, run-down Guyanese homes, colonial banknotes, and sugar plantation workers (a reference to the sugar fortune on which Tate was founded, Locke said).

Images of obsolete stock certificates that Locke painted—such as a bond issued by the Confederate States of America, or stock certificates of 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 territories and eras away.

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 and wearing a replica Crimean War medal. Locke intersperses darkness with joy throughout the installation, he explained, because “we need lift. I need to look at my work and not feel depressed.”

Viewing the work installed at Tate Britain a few days before it opens on March 22, the artist himself seemed overwhelmed by its sheer size. “That’s a hell of a lot of work!” he said.

It was too much for him alone, he added. Khanna, his wife, stepped in mid-way to tackle delivery obstacles 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.

There was no sign of these myriad production challenges in the gallery, only the hallucinatory spectacle of the crowd. Drummer boys, Spanish infantas and stilt walkers march inexorably on like a fevered apparition. Where you go?

“To the future,” Locke said. “I could see them going almost all the way through the place and disappearing behind this door and just dematerializing into something else.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/arts/design/hew-locke-the-procession-tate-britain.html Light colors, dark motifs: Hew Locke’s disturbing pageant

Isaiah Colbert

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