Hew Locke’s carnival commission on Tate Britain tells disturbing colonial tales with flamboyance
Of course, this is not a competition, but Tate Britain’s two most recent public commissions: Chila Burman’s neon extravaganza on its facade and Heather Phillipson’s epic dystopian gesamtkunstwerk in the Duveen Galleries were, however, difficult to follow. But Hew Locke, whose commission to fill Duveen’s majestic spaces was unveiled this week, has more than succeeded.
Praise has been nearly universal for Locke’s huge installation, which sets off a multifaceted kaleidoscopic parade of around 150 life-size figures down the central spine of Tate Britain. the procession forms a lively crowd across all ages and generations, each a distinct individual in ornate, meticulously handcrafted costume. Some carry banners, some swing on stilts, some ride horses. They dance, prance, gesticulate, strut and stride out. The faces are decorated with stars and flowers, covered with fierce animal heads or abstract sculptural masks or topped with elaborate headdresses. There are little drummers, pregnant women, majestic goddesses, invalids in wheelchairs and sinister types in suits – all of humanity is here.
Like all the best contests, the procession is unruly and vibrant but also meticulously orchestrated. Locke said he wanted to do something uplifting for the difficult times we are going through. It took him more than a year, toiling away with eight assistants and the gathering created by this Edinburgh-born, Guyana-raised artist who, for many years, for years in Brixton, south London vibrates with delirious energy.
But Procession also reflects the dark underbelly of global histories, geographies, and cultures, with Locke also stating that he aims to blend “ideas of attraction and ideas of discomfort.” The work can easily be read as part celebration, part carnival, part funeral procession, and part political protest. It is also difficult not to associate it with the displacement of populations and the massive movements of refugees.
For all its flamboyance, the great strength of this extraordinary work lies in its wealth of intricate detail. A closer look at the costumes and flags reveals that their rich textures and lavish ornamentation are pasted, printed, and painted images of abandoned plantation houses and stock certificates in colonial societies, including gold mines. gold in Nigeria and the Jamaica Trading Company.
On the flares of pants are grim diagrams of the human cargo of slave ships. Locke is only too aware of Tate’s own involvement in the legacy of slavery through the wealth of its founder, the sugar refining magnate. Then, with particularly disturbing timeliness, on the skin of one of the drums struck at the head of the march is a 1913 stock certificate issued by the Russian General Oil Corporation. Other costumes are adorned with incriminating details of paintings from the Tate’s collection, and a portrait of Napoleon, who reintroduced slavery to Haiti, is carried in a ceremonial coffin. We are never allowed to forget how interconnected the past, present and future are.
The more you scrutinize the details of the procession, the richer and more disturbing it becomes. Locke’s own practice of using carefully chosen ornaments to complicate and fan the problematic nature of many public monuments, long before difficult statuary became a hot topic, reaches its climax here. Some of his figures even wear ornate garments from past projects, such as his elaborate re-costume of the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster Square. Walking among these figures, each visitor becomes part of Locke’s processional extravaganza, both swept away by its festive energy but also embroiled in the many troubled stories it conjures up. We all have no choice but to get involved, none of us are exempt.