“In a major new commission for the Tate museum group in London, the British-Guyanese artist returns to the themes of empire and postcolonial reckoning that have fascinated him throughout his career.” Elizabeth Fullerton reviews Hew Locke’s work for The New York Times (1 April 2022).
On a recent morning, a cavernous studio in south London was a vista of ordered chaos. Elaborate headdresses covered several tables, a jumble of cardboard cutout body parts lay heaped on a palette and boxes overflowed with leopard-print fabrics, fake fur and gaudy fake jewelry. Sewing machines whirred and hammers banged.
Calmly supervising the mayhem was Hew Locke, a British-Guyanese artist renowned for his visually dazzling assemblages that explore global power structures and the legacy of colonialism by riffing on symbols of sovereignty, from coats of arms and trophies to weaponry and public statuary.
With Locke looking on, 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 to look like they were hauling a treasure chest. “They’ve all got their little stories,” said Locke of the motley throng of figures that filled the space.
Locke, 62, had created 140 of these human-size figures, plus five horses, for a major sculptural commission at Tate Britain, which he has envisioned as an exuberant cavalcade down the museum’s neoclassical central gallery. Conceived with lavish theatricality but on a human scale, the work, called “The Procession” and on view through Jan. 22, 2023, feels part religious pageant, part carnival, part danse macabre.
“The whole thing is like a massive poem,” Locke said in an interview ahead of the show. “There’s a lot of very dark stuff: colonialism, history, politics. But that’s irrelevant,” he added. “The really important thing is that it must look exciting. It must look colorful. It mustn’t be boring.”
The work is installed throughout the two grand colonnaded halls flanking an octagonal room that make up the Duveen Galleries, as the museum’s 300-foot spine is known. Since 2000, the Tate museum group has commissioned an artist every year to respond to the space.
Implicit in the invitation is the need for spectacle. The artist Fiona Banner memorably suspended a fighter jet there in 2010, and, in 2014, Phyllida Barlow filled it with teetering structures, bursting containers and colossal stacks of wood and debris to recreate the bustle and danger of a commercial dock.
“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 a career.”
In a 40-year practice engaged with themes of empire, globalization and migration, the Tate Britain exhibit is a milestone for Locke, who, like many artists of color, was long excluded from prestigious museum commissions here. Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain’s director, said in an interview that there were “intense ambiguities” in Locke’s flamboyant yet unsettling procession. “I would say this is linked to a Latin American, Caribbean idea of magic realism, which is about the convergence of reality, history, myth and the imaginary,” he said. “It’s an updated magic realism, taking these ideas into new terrain in the medium of installation art.”
“Hew is an incredible maker,” said Courtney J. Martin, the director of the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, which will give Locke a show in 2024. “I don’t think that we talk enough about his skill and his craftspersonship, his ability to put disparate objects together to make a whole that is cohesive,” she added.
Locke got his first big break in 2000 with an installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum titled “Hemmed in Two,” a sprawling cardboard structure like a ruined paddle steamer crossed with a Mughal palace. The multilayered piece, covered with bar codes and shipping labels suggesting global trade routes, marked Locke’s embrace of cardboard as a staple of his practice. The material still features heavily in “The Procession,” often left crudely unfashioned.
“It seemed instinctive not to have everything perfect. I’m a big fan of meticulous imperfection,” said Locke. [. . .]
In the gallery, there was no trace of these myriad production challenges, only the hallucinatory spectacle of the multitude. Drummer boys, Spanish infantas and stilt walkers all march inexorably onward like a feverish apparition. Where are they going?
“Into the future,” said Locke. “I could see them almost walking through the whole place and disappearing beyond that door, just dematerializing into something else.”
[Photos above by Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times: Hew Locke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London; Where are the figures in “The Procession” going? “Into the future,” Locke said.]