Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing

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Hew Locke festoons classical Western art with the detritus of Empire

This is the most comprehensive exhibition to date of what I think is one of the most exciting and thought provoking artists around. Like all great art there is much more to it than just the initial response to how it looks; it has layer upon layer of meaning as well as layer upon layer of beads and other reused stuff.

Great art exists primarily in its own media, which is why writing about it can be so difficult — if it could be expressed in words why do the art in the first place? Locke’s work concerns the impact of colonialism and the imperial British past on the present. He was born in Guyana, a British colony on the mainland of South America but part of the British Caribbean. He left Guyana when he was a child and, like so many others, moved to the not-so-welcoming motherland.

In 2012 he was commissioned to do an installation on HMS Belfast, a battle cruiser moored in the Thames that has been transformed into a museum. The museum has mannequins that show the typical life aboard the ship when it was active in the 1950s and 60s. Locke in his “The Tourists” recast the mannequins with headdresses from carnival times in the Caribbean. HMS Belfast was present at the granting of independence to Trinidad. The effect is both joyful and disturbing. It recasts the cruiser — an imposer of imperial order now being overrun by disorder and carnival. This exhibition includes a film of that installation.

The show also has his work “The Nameless” (2010), which is an amazing work of beads that outlines a procession similar to the ones you see on friezes in the British Museum of ancient civilisations. But here it is a procession representing declining British power, made of mutated symbols from the Empire.

The work both contemplates the disintegration of imperial symbols and at the same time is itself beautiful and awe-inspiring — if disturbing, with the symbols running riot. It’s a frieze of chaos and anarchy, not a stately procession of triumph.

The biggest of the works on display is his new work “Armada”. It incorporates five ships from his 2017 work “On the Tethys Sea”, which was part of the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but now expanded and much bigger. Guyana means land of the waters and traditional houses are ones built on stilts and raised above the rivers and seas. As Locke says in an accompanying video of him taking about the show, boats are in his DNA. He came to Britain on a boat, part of the post-Windrush generation.

His Armada has a number of boats filled with the messy and complicated symbols of migration, Empire and history. It is a wonderful and wondrous work. The more you look the more you see and the more layers of meaning you find. It draws you to things from the past, with bits of the Mayflower and old wooden ships of the Royal Navy, as well a model of the Windrush. But it also contains the present; the drowned bodies in the Mediterranean and people using any raft or boat to try to flee war and poverty.

I was really moved by the exhibition and it is one that I could visit time and time again, which, as it is free, it is possible to do.