In 2015, the mindful vandal struck again. Dressing down another public statue by dressing him up, Locke layered engraved brass sugar cubes and sugar cane onto a bust of Henry Tate. The museum’s founding benefactor was a sugar magnate whose wealth was ‘built on the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean’, as the gallery itself notes in the afterword to its current exhibition, Life Between Islands. Included here are the white porcelain busts of 19th-century British monarchs that Locke has plastered with the medals of empire, east African coins and jewels. ‘Souvenir 2 (Edward VII in Masonic Regalia)’ is the most decorated (pun intended), crowned in a golden carnival headdress that covers all but his stony eyes and stiff upper lip.
Letting Off Steam with Hew Locke's Procession
Amidst anger and confusion in 2020, when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled from its plinth by protesters in Bristol, I found reassurance in a work by Hew Locke. His 2006 act of ‘mindful vandalism’ upon the Colston statue, which involved dressing it up in golden cowrie shells and other trade beads, did seem carefully defiant, balanced and alive to the world in all its twinkling complexity.
"now is the time to let off steam"
Spilling out of Life Between Islands, and just in time for its close, Locke’s latest commission breathes life into Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries – and whether a walk out, funeral march, strike, parade, evacuation or migration, The Procession is far from mindful, in the sense of a quiet moment of reflection. Loud and vibrant, it’s a change of pace, a party, and you’re invited to join the steady stream of 150 life-sized figures. Every one of the revellers is intricately handmade from plaster, cardboard, papier-maché. While the artist and his studio spent over a year working on them, now is the time to let off steam. Locke has said that he wants to make something uplifting for the difficult times we are going through, and what better way to step out of the usual run of things than with a delirious carnival?
"The impenetrable hierarchy collapses when you put on an elaborate mask"
After all, historically speaking, a carnival is a symbolic inversion of the social order. Strict piety? Out the window! The impenetrable hierarchy collapses when you put on an elaborate mask. Peasants become kings for the day. Hew Locke’s vision is subtler. A solemn funeral cortege bleeds seamlessly into a Day of the Dead romp. A young boy beats a drum made from a Russian General Oil Corporation bond. Banners display the disappearing colonial architecture of Locke’s childhood in Guyana. Far from upturning the usual power dynamics, these figures wear or carry the evidence of global financial and colonial control.
Locke set out to make ‘links with the historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing out of the walls of the building’. It’s as if once he started he couldn’t stop. The museum was expecting sixty figures initially, but more and more joined the mob. The result is a work that’s more excessive, but also more diligent and dogged, tracing the after-effects of the sugar business way beyond the Tate’s walls.
"tracing the after-effects of the sugar business way beyond the Tate’s walls"
In 2020, Rianna Jade Parker wrote an article for Art News criticising Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus statue for not sufficiently dealing with its site and the context surrounding it. ‘If it were afforded the same resources and an international stage, could a community-based and collaborative process involving Black British artists have resulted in something more nuanced?’ she asks, adding ‘if such a project were to be undertaken, I’d suggest artist Hew Locke as its leader.’ Less than two years later, she has been vindicated.
While it’s not clear where The Procession is headed, its Grand Marshal is inviting us to get in step.
By Sammi Gale