Carnival and colonialism converge in Hew Locke’s “The Procession”

Aditya Iyer (Hyperallergic) reviews Hew Locke’s “The Procession,” underlining that “Locke’s stunning, sensuous spectacle of pattern and color, just like the grand tradition of Caribbean carnivals, hints at sinister elements that undergird the whole endeavor.”

The first thing that may strike viewers upon entering Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is a raucous spectacle of colors. More than 140 mannequins, festooned with fabric strips, elaborate masks, and cloth flags, are frozen in a vivid march through time. 

At first it looks like a carnival; but upon closer inspection the unruly throng reveals signs of a disturbing history. Interspersed between riotously posed figures, some of whose jutting legs precariously balance on stilts, are images that should prompt viewers to pause. Textile recreations of colonial-era maps, share certificates in imperial sugar corporations, and even advertisements for the Black Star Line jostle for space in this flamboyant procession.

This is The Procession — this year’s ambitious Tate Britain Commission by British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke. Through this spectacular display the 62-year-old artist has brought to life themes he has grappled with for the entirety of his long career. Colonialism, the ebb and flow of cultures via migration (chosen or forced), the intermingling of peoples and subsequent erasure of traditions under imperialism — all are present within the spectacle that now dominates the Duveen Galleries.

Cycles of history, and the idea of empire, have been central to Locke’s artistic interests and personal background. Born in Edinburgh in 1959 to a Guyanese father and an English mother, both artists, he inherited their talents. (His father, Donald Locke, was part of a concurrent exhibition at the Tate Britain exploring Caribbean-British art that closed in early April). The Locke family left for Guyana in 1966, on the eve of the former British colony’s independence.

Witnessing the birth of a nation, one that had to grapple with the tensions and struggles that beleaguer all formerly colonized nations — from establishing a cohesive constitution that reflects the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures introduced via empire to grappling with the nation’s immense impoverishment as a result of European colonialism — profoundly shaped Locke, something that becomes clear not only through the ideas he wrestles with, but in his methods too.

Locke returned to the UK to study art in 1980. This moment was a turning point in British art as artists of African and Asian descent began mobilizing to empower Black voices and champion their art. Inspired by anti-racist and feminist discourse, the British Black Arts Movement helped define a new generation of artistic talent in Britain. 

Unsurprisingly given his background, Locke’s oeuvre has been far more international than resolutely British. The Tate installation embodies this perfectly; it is a stunning, sensuous spectacle of light and color that, just like the grand tradition of Caribbean carnivals, hints at sinister elements for the observer to glean amid the meticulously orchestrated flamboyance.

Colonial share certificates from Jamaican sugar plantations and Nigerian goldmines, reproduced in textile shawls that drape demonically masked figures, highlight tangled webs of international commerce and finance, and how capitalism as a system evolved out of colonial practices and racist violence. 

This colonial ephemera adorns much of the clothing that drapes the figures. Textile maps that show how the African continent and the Caribbean were divided by imperial companies embellish the back of blazers; a stock certificate for £5000 issued by the Jamaica Trading Company swaddles a figure in a mournful mask; a flag hoisted is a blown-up image of a gold bond issued by the Dutch-Asiatic bank on behalf of the Chinese Imperial Government. 

Amid the color and pageantry are dotted reminders of the material consequences of colonialism, and the systems of production, capitalism, and mercantilism they spawned. [. . .]

For full article, see

[Photo above, Installation view of Hew Locke: The Procession at Tate Britain, and all photos by Aditya Iyer. See Hyperallergic.]

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