While his installation, The Procession, is in its final weeks at the Tate Britain, we take a look at the legacy of Hew Locke.
A Guyanese-British sculptor, born in Edinburgh in 1959, Hew spent his formative years (1966-80) in Guyana before returning to the UK at the age of 21 with an aim to study art. Being born as part of a visible minority into an ancient nation, and then moving to Guyana just as it gained independence from the UK in 1966, Locke has an exceptionally clear view of the identities cultures claim to possess.
This is perfectly encapsulated in The Procession, described as a ‘roaring carnival of humanity’. Hew’s installation features 150 figures in masks, hand-sewn costumes and draped fabrics, journeying through Tate Britain. Locke has described the piece as an ‘extended poem’, his convoy of colour exploring the languages of colonial and post-colonial power, how different cultures form their identities, and how these representations are altered by the passage of time.
The Procession pays close attention to Henry Tate, the sugar refinery merchant whose wealth was created through the slave trade, however indirectly, and whose donation of art during the 19th century helped establish what is today, Tate Britain.
Taking inspiration from coats-of-arms, public statues, trophies, weaponry, naval warships and the costumes and regalia of royalty, Hew fuses existing material and historic sources with his own political or cultural concerns, “The legacy of the British empire is all around us on a daily basis – not just the variety of ethnic backgrounds that we have living in the UK, but the buildings and public statues that you see in cities across the country that came into being out of the economy of empire.”
Particularly renowned are his early portraits of the Queen. A traditional symbol of imperial authority, Hew carefully deconstructs the power and history behind these institutions, begging the audience to consider its contemporary and commercial relevance. In reference to his interest in the British monarchy, he states “People ask me why I’m working on pictures of the royal family. They expect me to be angry, but I don’t see the point. When you hand in your passport, you see that you are in fact a subject of the Queen. My work is a weird kind of acceptance of that situation. My feelings about the Royal Family are ambivalent. I am simply fascinated by the institution and its relationship to the press and public. My political position is neither republican nor monarchist.”
This ambitious new work is part and parcel of the cycle of life; people gather and move together to celebrate, worship, protest, mourn, escape. The vivid procession makes its way from the past into the future, from old wounds to new. In our now-globalised world, Locke asks us to try and digest our complex history. Taking inspiration from real events and inviting us to sit with them, walk alongside them, all of us innately human, gathering and walking together.