Published on July 28, 2022 in Art Spiel Each year The Tate Britain commissions a large-scale art installation for the iconic Duveen Galleries at the museum. This is a vast space, an art-filled hall, more than a typical gallery that winds its way down the center of the museum on the first floor. This year they tapped the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke whose visual musings on migration, history, national identity and ritual are well known in the British art world. Locke has long worked these themes, but never on such a scale. It is a wildly ambitious vision that embraces his interests and presents a fully developed Universe.
Locke has created a massive procession of about 150 life-sized figures fabricated from a wide array of materials. As they march through the soaring white marble space we are drawn into the history of the British sugar trade; Henry Tate, the founding benefactor of the museum made his fortune in the Caribbean sugar trade, a lucrative but abusive business built on the back of slave-labor. The installation references Carnival, British military parades, Caribbean death rituals, weddings, the BLM movement, farming, flood- in its dizzying yet always coherent parade of imagery and objects.
There are figures on horses, bands playing musical instruments being carried on palanquins. As we walk around the procession we see flags both real and imaginary. Sugar plantation certificates printed on fluttery silk. Men, women and children all moving in silence. It is a procession that is full of both sorrow and joy. Many of the figures are masked… or perhaps these are their true faces that we are seeing, without their “social masks.” All are wearing elaborate costumes that reference historical and social events and that carry baggage, both real and conceptual.
It is an extraordinary project. I have never seen anything quite like it. A part of me longed for music or sound to accompany the procession. It seems to beg for that. But after spending over an hour circling the work repeatedly, I began to understand the beauty of its silence. One could extrapolate a metaphor from this- of a people being silenced. That is perhaps too pat an explanation and Locke too nuanced an artist to provide such an obvious answer. I began to appreciate the music that viewers can bring to the project via their imaginations. I heard British marching songs interspersed with the sounds of the Caribbean. And I heard the silent weight of history marching resolutely forward, acknowledging its past and seeking to transcend it.
Hew Locke: The Procession Runs through Jan. 23, 2023 at The Tate Britain. Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.