Hannah Clugston (The Guardian) reviews Hew Locke’s “Here’s the Thing,” presently on view at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England, until June 2, 2019. In Clugston’s words, “The Scottish-Guyanese artist displays dozens of model boats alongside royal busts encrusted with the spoils of British exploits for a rich history of empire.” [Also see previous post Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing.]
Hew Locke peers through his glasses at a model boat hanging from the ceiling of Ikon Gallery. He is wearing blue medical gloves and is carefully applying the finishing touches to his exhibition, Here’s the Thing – a phrase he apparently uses a lot when describing his work. There are 46 boats evenly spaced and delicately hung across the second-floor gallery space. A riff on his installation On the Tethys Sea, Locke’s contribution to the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, Armada – as it is now known – is a rag-tag band of vessels ranging from rafts to ships, lifeboats to speedboats. “Where are they going?” Locke ponders aloud.
Catching Locke in this stance of concentration offers a momentary snapshot of what much of his creative process must look like. Here he stands, poring over a familiar object, adding his own interventions. He did it when he added memorabilia to these boats, when he painted over a photograph of a monument of Queen Victoria and when he dressed the mannequins on HMS Belfast in carnival costumes. That’s because, to Locke, a boat is not just a boat, but a passenger liner that carried the Windrush generation to the UK, and a statue of Queen Victoria is not just a monument to a monarch but a signifier of colonialism. His creative additions to recognisable images and items illustrate the history infused in everything around us, which he highlights with beads, medals and colourful paint.
Born in Edinburgh but spending much of his childhood in Georgetown, Guyana, the 59-year-old artist identified the symbolic power of objects at an early age. In 1970, a socialist uprising saw to it that a statue of Queen Victoria was dumped in the undergrowth of Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens, only to be rescued and reinstated in 1990. This statue is the subject of Hinterland, a photograph of the worse-for-wear monument that Locke has painted in vibrant hues and overlaid with ghostly images of skeletons and residents oppressed by empire. As the title of the work suggests, we are not sure whether this statue is still in the undergrowth or whether it is standing. Consequently, Locke’s position is not defined, which is fitting for a man who insists he is neither a royalist nor a republican.
It is not Locke’s intention to tell us what we should think, merely that we need to look again. Another of the artist’s painted photographs hung in the first-floor gallery depicts HMS Belfast surrounded by Korean fighter jets. Locke created it after watching the Queen’s diamondjubilee flotilla and noticed the central role the Royal Navy ship played. The navy veterans and cadets that lined the ship on that day are not that boat’s only story – there is an extended narrative that includes war and destruction.
Lengthy histories are folded in to Locke’s detailed works. To a row of 19th-century busts of the British monarchy, Locke adds crowns, headdresses and clothing with layers of gold, jewels and beads. On closer inspection, the gold is more distinct, their regalia is made up of east African coins, Artists Rifles badges, clay skulls, Benin ivory masks and royal crests. Each individual bust reveals the history and legacy of the British royal family – the good and the bad. Some of the nuances of these items will remain hidden to anyone but Locke, who has spent his career constructing, collecting and researching. But it doesn’t really matter, because the final pieces are exquisitely beautiful, with enough detail to keep even casual historians captivated.
[Photo above: Rag-tag band of vessels … Here’s the Thing, 2019, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Tom Bird.]