“What I try to do in my do the job is mix ideas of attraction with concepts of discomfort – vibrant and attractive, but surprisingly, scarily surreal at the exact time.” —Hew Locke, 2022
A spectacle of dizzying flamboyance and spectral energy takes centre stage at Tate Britain this spring and summer season. The Procession by Hew Locke presents a sea of persons that surges forward to meet up with and engulf the viewer. Numbering above 150 sculpted figures, featuring adult men, ladies and small children, the perform is at the same time monumental and human scaled, using Tate’s capacious neo-classical Duveen galleries as it’s starting up stage to discover the trappings of nationhood and the methods in which communities appear alongside one another to lighten the pounds of record.
Intended by the artist “to reflect on the cycles of record and the ebbs and flows of cultures, people, finance and power”, there is nothing at all uniform or orderly about Locke’s procession. Each individual particular person is individuated although enjoying their section in the group and their sculptural realisation is deliberately irregular. Some are beating drums, bearing banners and weapons, or driving on horseback. Some are outfitted in black, masked and menacing. Many others are joyous in the acid crimson, yellow and eco-friendly of the Guyanese flag. Nonetheless others are in clothes seemingly purchased from the higher road. Some have options and faces carved out of cardboard, even though many others have flowers that bloom from their faces and are bedecked in patchwork robes and ribbons brilliant as the plumage of tropical birds. Several bear dresses, banners and other possessions in custom made-made cloth stamped with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century share certificates of the commodities that flowed from the slave trade, this kind of as the sugar revenue built by the Tate gallery’s founding benefactor Henry Tate.
Group scenes are exceptional in sculpture, the realisation of countless personal figures in 3-dimensional kind way too tricky and time-consuming to obtain. Still Locke’s procession succeeds in realising what Walt Whitman termed “the rolling ocean of the crowd” as a sculptural spectacle. Just about every particular person commands their possess place when convincingly cavorting as aspect of a group. To circle all over and in between these figures is to working experience a satisfyingly sophisticated composition in the round – as nevertheless one have been in a position to walk through Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Primary the Persons or amid the throng of James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels. Painting comparisons are apt simply because of the sheer exuberance of color on exhibit: in the abstract expression of the patch-worked banners and costumes, the technicolour hues of suits made of tattered cloths and Locke’s more than-painting and transforming of nineteenth-century graphic imagery. All appear with each other as a collaged whole coalescing close to just about every viewer.
Conceived as “an epic poem of pictures and ideas”, Locke’s references are many and irreducibly multicultural. Indian, Indo-Caribbean and British influences swim collectively in The Procession, autobiographically reflecting his Guyana childhood ordeals – in which he arrived, aged 5, by boat from Edinburgh, just in time to witness the ceremonial handover and celebrations of independence from Britain – and the themes that have preoccupied him due to the fact: colonial adventures and the concomitant wealth, realised by way of commodities established on the back of slave labour navy and medals and the relationship in between the pomp of nation-creating and everyday lives the ebb and circulation of fortunes in excess of time and boats as a metaphor for life. Imagery from Locke’s preceding works which include Cardboard Palace, his ongoing Sovereign and Share sequence and The Holidaymakers, a 2015 intervention on board HMS Belfast, float alongside carnival figures and tropes this kind of as Day of the Useless Celebrations and the Caribbean figures of ‘Pitchy-Patchy’, ‘Mother Sally’, ‘Midnight Robber’ and ‘Sailor Mas’.
In the course of, Locke’s imagery is emphatically substance, shaped from a vocabulary of serious earth issues whole of lived associations and an implicit price tag. From the uncanny dressing of figures in real footwear, clothing and low cost plastic jewellery, to the reams of vibrant materials offered from retailers around London fashioned into wonderful costumes, to the elevation of cardboard from disposable packaging compound to a medium of Do it yourself self-expression that taps into childhood memories of play and creation, Locke’s sculptural components disclose their origins and our associations to them. Poignantly this includes items from record – the authentic share certificates for the Black Star shipping business, for instance the graphics from the Brook Slave Ship very first released in 1788 that infamously exposed the inhuman problems of its human cargo and late nineteenth-century photos of sugar cane cutters and workers loading bananas for export. Appropriated and over-painted by Locke, these relics of Black oppression are shown as so considerably unavoidable historic flotsam and jetsam, their symbolisms however strong in spite of their now defunct economic worth.
A glimpse by The Procession to a Henry Moore sculpture throughout the hall of a mother, father and kid, all hewn out of the similar significant stone, emphasises just how heterogenous Locke’s creative language is, how freighted his materials are with messy indicating and creation. Locke’s is an aesthetics of extra rather than fewer, of aggregation and inclusion in which humanity is revealed in all its ragtag splendour and defiant variance his men and women the flamboyant flip aspect to the white sugar refinement of Tate’s original founder.
In direction of the back again of the group, Locke’s figures surface to have journeyed by drinking water, their dresses marred by salty tide-marks. Carrying banners depicting Guyana, their motion will become explicitly linked to the human value of environmental catastrophe of flooding brought about by international warming in this region whose title implies “Land of Several Waters” and in which 90% of the populace currently lives a metre underneath the stage of the sea. Aspect pageant, portion protest march, The Procession is also a migration of peoples that sweeps its viewers inside of its swells. On achieving the finish of the Duveen Galleries, I change backwards to the entrance of the museum, now dealing with the exact way as the crowd and strolling abreast with its irrepressible folks – a element of this seething sea of people today that bears the pounds of the earlier though marching ahead to meet the upcoming.
Hew Locke, The Procession, is at Tate Britain right up until 22 January 2023