This is the most comprehensive exhibition to date of work by British artist Hew Locke. Involving a wide range of media – painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and installation, Locke explores the languages of colonial and post-colonial power, and the symbols through which different cultures assume and assert identity. Fusing historical source material with a keen interest in current affairs, often through the juxtaposition or modification of existing artefacts, Locke focuses attention especially on the UK, the monarchy and his childhood home of the then newly independent Guyana.
Through appropriating coats of arms and trophies, weaponry, naval warships, public statuary and the costumes and regalia of state, Locke subtly critiques governmental authority, its iconographies and legacies. His Souvenir series of royal busts, including Souvenir 1 (Queen Victoria), (2018), are presented alongside re-workings of antique share certificates, obsolete documents referring to the turbulent history of colonial economies and their exploitative nature.
In Hinterland (2013), a reworked photograph of a statue of Queen Victoria in Georgetown, Guyana, Locke hints at the country’s tumultuous relationship with its past. Removed in 1970 and dumped in the undergrowth of Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens, the statue was subjected to a kind of dethroning, symptomatic of Guyana’s then burgeoning socialist republic, only to be reinstated in 1990 in front of the city’s Supreme Court of Judicature.
Ships and boats recur through the galleries as leitmotifs for the exhibition. Carriers of countless possible meanings, evoking centuries of warfare, trade and strategies of cultural imperialism, they also hold personal significance for the artist: “Here’s the thing: Guyana means ‘land of many waters’ – you are constantly aware of boats. I went to Guyana as a five-year-old kid on a boat. I came back here on a boat. So many things, good and bad, travel by sea.”
Video installation The Tourists (2015) recasts Locke’s artistic intervention on board the British battle cruiser HMS Belfast. Active in the Korean War as well as World War 2, HMS Belfast visited the Caribbean in 1962, stopping at Trinidad on its final voyage. Locke conjures up an alternative history for the on-board museum mannequins, where we see them preparing costumes and props to take part in the Trinidad Carnival. The satirical gesture hints at an “exotic” alternative to the regimented daily life of sailors, whilst reminding us that ships launched in the name of western democracy and “civilisation” were essentially vehicles for unfair trade.
The finale of the exhibition presents a flotilla of customised boats, comprised of a mixture of new ships and those featured in the installation On the Tethys Sea (2017), first shown in the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice. Suspended from the gallery ceiling, intricate decorations, talismans and greenery adorn these empty vessels – with crew and passengers as absent presences – immersing visitors in a submarine environment, at once dreamlike and poignant.
Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing will take place at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri (12 September 2019 – 5 January 2020) and Colby College Museum of Art, Maine (February – June 2020). The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Ikon Gallery, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Colby College Museum of Art, with an introduction by Jonathan Watkins and texts by Professor Richard Drayton (Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, King’s College London), Franklin Sirmans (Director, Pérez Art Museum Miami) and Diana K. Tuite (Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Colby College Museum of Art).