The Quietus | Features | Craft/Work
“What I try to do in my work is to mix ideas of attraction with ideas of discomfort – colorful and appealing, but strangely, scary at the same time.” —Hew Locke, 2022
A spectacle of dizzying flamboyance and spectral energy takes center stage at Tate Britain this spring and summer. the procession by Hew Locke features a sea of people rushing to meet and engulf the viewer. With over 150 sculpted figures, representing men, women and children, the work is both monumental and human-scale, taking the Tate’s vast neo-classical Duveen Galleries as a starting point for exploring the trappings of the nation and the ways in which communities come together to lighten the weight of history.
Intended by the artist to “reflect on the cycles of history and the ebbs and flows of cultures, peoples, finances and power”, there is nothing uniform or orderly about Locke’s procession. Each is individualized while playing its role in the crowd and its sculptural realization is deliberately irregular. Some beat drums, carry banners and arms, or ride horses. Some are dressed in black, masked and threatening. Others rejoice in the acid red, yellow and green of the Guyanese flag. Still others wear clothes apparently purchased on the high street. Some have features and faces carved out of cardboard, while others have flowers blooming on their faces and are adorned with patchwork dresses and shiny ribbons like the plumage of tropical birds. Many carry bespoke cloth clothing, banners and other personal effects stamped with 18th and 19th century stock certificates of slave trade goods, such as sugar money earned by the founding benefactor of the Tate Gallery, Henry Tate.
Crowd scenes are rare in sculpture, the realization of countless individual figures in three-dimensional form too difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Yet Locke’s procession manages to achieve what Walt Whitman called “the rolling ocean of the crowd” as a sculptural spectacle. Each person controls their own space while cavorting convincingly as part of a group. Turning around and between these characters is to experience a composition in the round of satisfying complexity – as if one could walk through the work of Eugène Delacroix. Liberty Leading the People or among the crowd of James Ensor The Entry of Christ into Brussels. Paint comparisons are appropriate because of the sheer exuberance of color on display: in the abstract expression of banners and patchwork costumes, the technicolor hues of costumes made of tattered fabrics, and the overpainting and reworking of imagery 19th century graphic by Locke. All come together in a whole glued around each spectator.
Conceived as “an epic poem of images and ideas”, Locke’s references are multiple and irreducibly multicultural. Indian, Indo-Caribbean and British influences come together the procession, autobiographically reflecting his childhood experiences in Guyana – where he arrived, aged five, by boat from Edinburgh, just in time to attend the handover ceremony and independence celebrations of Britain – and the themes that have preoccupied him ever since: colonial adventures and the concomitant wealth, achieved through goods created on the backs of slave labor; the military and medals and the relationship between the pomp of nation-building and ordinary life; the ebb and flow of fortunes over time; and boats as a metaphor for life. Images of Locke’s previous works, including cardboard palacehis courses Sovereign and To share series and The touristsa 2015 intervention aboard HMS Belfast, float alongside characters and carnival tropes such as Day of the Dead Celebrations and the Caribbean characters of “Pitchy-Patchy”, “Mother Sally”, “Midnight Robber” and “Sailor Mas”.
Throughout, Locke’s imagery is essentially material, formed from a vocabulary of real-world things full of lived associations and implicit price. From the bizarre dressing of characters in real shoes, cheap plastic clothes and jewellery, to the reams of colorful fabrics available in London shops fashioned into fabulous costumes, to the cardboard elevation of a substance of disposable packaging to a means of DIY self-expression that Drawing on childhood memories of play and invention, Locke’s sculptural materials reveal their origins and our relationship to them. Poignantly, this includes pieces of history – the genuine stock certificates of the Black Star shipping company, for example; the charts of the Brook Slave Ship first published in 1788 which sadly revealed the inhumane conditions of its human cargo; and late 19th century photographs of sugar cane cutters and laborers loading bananas for export. Appropriated and overpainted by Locke, these relics of black oppression are presented as unmissable historic shipwrecks and jetsams, their symbolisms still potent despite their now vanished financial value.
A glimpse through the procession to a sculpture by Henry Moore across the hall of a mother, father and child, all carved from the same large stone, underlines how heterogeneous Locke’s artistic language is, how his materials are loaded with messy meaning and invention. Locke is an aesthetic of more rather than less, of aggregation and inclusion in which humanity is shown in all its motley splendor and provocative difference; its people the flamboyant flip side of the white sugar refinement of the original Tate founder.
Towards the rear of the crowd, Locke’s figures appear to have traveled through water, their clothes marred by salt tides. Carrying banners bearing the image of Guyana, their movement becomes explicitly linked to the human cost of the environmental catastrophe of the floods caused by global warming in this country whose name means “Land of many waters” and where 90% of the population already lives one meter below sea level. Part historical re-enactment, part protest march, the procession it is also a migration of peoples that carries its spectators away in its swell. As I reach the end of the Duveen Galleries, I turn back towards the museum entrance, now facing the crowds and walking abreast with its irrepressible individuals – part of that seething sea of people who carry the weight of the past as they walk to the future.
Hew Locke, The Procession, is at Tate Britain until January 22, 2023