Guyanese British artist Hew Locke is at a pivotal moment in his thirty-plus year career as a fine artist. Most recently, Locke received the Tate Commission and created a sprawling installation composed of 140 human-sized figures and five horses in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain. This installation, on view until January 2023, has been his most ambitious and significant artistic endeavor to date and has received much critical acclaim. In September, Locke will be having another milestone moment as he will be installing a new series of work for the Met Museum’s Fifth Avenue facade niches. I sat down with Hew in his Brixton studio a few weeks after the opening of The Procession.
Emann Odufu (Rail): It's interesting that as a child, you returned to Guyana on the eve of its independence and that your formative years were spent there from 1966 to 1980. Obviously, this a significant time in the development of modern Guyana. Ideas of nationalism were taking hold. There were many new ideas as to how a country could operate outside the influence of Britain and how it should be governed. It was also at the height of the Cold War and a time when people were critiquing the system of capitalism from which the British Empire was built. So I’m interested in knowing how growing up during this time influenced you and your practice.
Hew Locke: You don't realize how things influence you until much later. It wasn't until I came to the UK to live that I realized that my whole color sensibility was Guyanese. I'm talking about the colors that I used to paint. When I came here in the early eighties, I tried to be a British artist, and I failed massively. It just wasn't me. There wasn't as much value being placed on art from the Caribbean in those days. Galleries were picking up just a few artists, but that was about it.
You accept what's around you as a kid. It's only years later that you question things. I remember Guyana becoming a Cooperative Socialist Republic and how strange that was. I remember seeing the Queen Victoria statue outside what was once the Queen Victoria Law Courts; now the Guyana Law courts; dumped at the back of the botanical gardens on its side with its head broken off. By the time I saw it next, it was being propped up again. People must understand that this is just as shocking as the end of the Cold War when all the statues of Lenin and Marx were being torn down. It made me realize that the normal balance of things can change.
I remember 1973, which was seminal because we were dealing with the oil crisis. Suddenly, the price of gasoline at the pump skyrocketed because the pricing structure was changed by Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which, as you know, affects global politics to this day. So I saw and experienced all these things. In Guyana, various imports from other countries were being banned. Those were the years when we decided we would grow and produce what we needed ourselves. The slogan was, “We must feed, house, and clothe ourselves by 1976.” I smile at this because it was positive, but it eventually became very problematic and political. I'm not going to get into that right now because politics from that part of the world, especially at that time, was very messy stuff.
When I talk about Guyana, I’m constantly trying to show a different view of the Caribbean from what is the dominant narrative. In Britain, being Caribbean is a very Jamaican thing, for obvious reasons. There’s a large portion of Caribbean people from Jamaica here, but I grew up in a country where roughly fifty two percent of people are descended from indentured servants from India. I grew up celebrating Hindu festivals with friends at school. Some of them were Afro-Caribbean, some Indo-Caribbean. It’s a mixed-up and extremely complicated society, and I’m constantly arguing for a complex view of the Caribbean rather than a one-dimensional view.
Rail: You mentioned that Guyana is a country with many different cultural influences: African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, and Amerindian. I’m curious how this hybridization of culture and identity plays into your perception of yourself and, as a result, your practice.
Locke: I realized that I started getting into the idea of invented culture. All cultures invent themselves, and nations invent their symbols over time. So, when people ask me “where do you come from?” that may sound like a benign question, but it’s actually a complicated one. It was problematic to me because it always seemed to end with a sentiment like, “Oh, you're not one of us. You will never belong here.”
So, I started to create and had people look at my work and say, “I really like this work. Have you been to Haiti? Have you been to India?” I was being classed as a kind of folk artist. They didn’t see what I was doing as contemporary art. That word, by the way, wasn’t really invented at the time. So, I decided that I was going to make deliberately exotic work. If you want exotic, I will give it to you, and I will control the narrative. So I started making fake exotica. I started making stuff, which was taken from here, there, and everywhere to create what I grew up with, a hybridized cultural experience.
For example, anybody from my generation in Guyana, even people who can’t draw, can do a reasonably decent scribble of the Timehri symbol. It’s an Amerindian petroglyph that is fused into the Guyanese cultural awareness. In Jamaica, it’ll be a very different type of imagery that is part of their cultural awareness. In Trinidad, they have Carnival, and in Jamaica, they have reggae. In Guyana, what we have is this unique wooden architecture, the whole Amerindian thing, and being the only English-speaking country in South America. The coastline culturally looks towards the Caribbean, and the interior, which is home to the Amazon Rainforest, culturally looks towards Brazil. It's a strange and intriguing place because there's no tourism like in the rest of the Caribbean. After all, the sea is brown. It gives the country a very different psychological identity.
Rail: Right now, there are all these conversations about reparations for slavery, and for me, it’s fascinating because how would that even work? Especially in countries like Guyana, where there were different colonial overlords at different periods.
Locke: And you can’t just ask for reparations from the British. That wouldn't be fair. You have to ask for reparations from the Dutch as well, because the Dutch literally built the land. The reason why we're living at the coastline, as you probably know, is because the Dutch built the sea wall. In the last fifteen years, I found out that the Dutch built the infamous “Back Dam.” In Guyana, people would say the phrase “going by the Back Dam” and this was an almost mythical place in Guyanese folk songs. During the Dutch rule, the Back Dam was built by enslaved people to keep the swamp water out.
Rail: Something I continually come back to in my writings and interviews with artists is this idea that there are many gaps in Western history, and the stories we are told about how the modern world came to be are not all-encompassing. They strategically leave out the complete picture and the contributions of Black and brown people. There was and is no monolithic Black experience. Even while slavery was happening, there were millionaire Black pirates in the Caribbean, and in Europe's past, there were Black knights, and I would argue, even Black heads of state. What is understood as white people do not monopolize Western culture. They are not the only ones who can make a claim to it. Further, the terms Black and white to describe race have only been around since the advent of transatlantic slavery.
When I look at your work, and I don't know if this is even on purpose or not, but it channels some of these untold histories. There's a term called “critical fabulation,” created by Saidiya Hartman, which signifies a creative methodology that combines historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative. A lot of your work embodies this term, but specifically your installation, The Tourists. Can you tell me how that installation came to be?
Locke: The Tourists is a piece on HMS Belfast. The HMS Belfast is a battleship that was part of World War II and the Korean War. It was there at Tanzania's independence and there for Jamaica’s independence. It’s full of mannequin figures made in the seventies, and they demonstrate different roles on a naval ship.
Rail: Yeah, there’s a battleship like that in New York that I remember being taken to as a kid. I believe the name is the USS Intrepid, so I'm familiar with that type of museum, but please continue.
Locke: So I was commissioned to do an installation on the HMS Belfast, and I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what I would do. I realized all I had to do was put a mask on these figures, and that would change the reality on board the battleship. I decided to alter history and have the HMS Belfast arrive months earlier to Trinidad than it did in actual history and in time for Carnival. In this alternate reality, the crew members started a mass band called The Tourists, and the piece is about these guys’ inner lives.
The crew members are literally tourists. They’re white British sailors, and they’re preparing to head into Port of Spain to party. It's a complex thing, and it's not a joke because these guys are there as representatives of the Empire, but at the same time, they're human beings with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. So it's important to note that the piece was not dismissing people. It was trying to channel a complex kind of altered reality.
Rail: You seem to have a fascination with boats and ships.
Locke: It's a rich foundation to build from because of how boats are tied to every aspect of European Imperialism. They are important in the history of Britain's naval supremacy in their disputes with other European countries. I already mentioned the role the golden age of piracy played in maintaining the power of the English crown. Obviously, boats were important in slavery, the transportation of indentured servants around the British Empire, and the transportation of spices, sugarcane, and cotton. On another level, and maybe the most important, boats influenced a hybridization of culture that was transported from port to port in the British Empire. You can make so many different connections just by looking at boats.
Locke: I've been working with boat sculptures for quite a while. The first one I did was back in ’88 at my art school, where I made a boat with lots of potamic images on it, to take the souls of dead slaves back to Africa. Every few years I would need to psychologically make a boat. Growing up in Guyana, you had to take a ferry to cross the river because there weren’t many bridges. The name Guyana means “land of many waters,” so boat trips were a normal part of growing up. It becomes part of your brain and the way the brain functions. I realized that boats are something that people can hold in their minds, and model boat sculptures are something people can hold in their hands. You understand it. It becomes a metaphor for the journey from life through death. It becomes something quite bigger than what it is. It becomes a metaphor for migration, even though people are mostly flying by plane these days.
Rail: Yeah, in the US, and I assume other countries as well, whenever there is a new immigrant community, they are called “fresh off the boat,” regardless of whether they arrived by airplane or not.
Locke: Yes, fresh off the boat. I did a piece called For Those in Peril on the Sea, shown in the Folkestone Triennial in South England, a town known for its fishing port. The piece was then brought to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. When it went on show there, the reaction was personal and very different because the vast majority of people experiencing it had recently migrated with their families. They were not fourth or fifth-generation Americans, but second or first generation. People took it to heart, and it was quite moving. They understood it intimately. It’s talking about the history of the sea, the slave trade, and indentureship, but also it’s talking about things like the Mediterranean refugee crisis where people were getting on rickety boats to go to Lampedusa Island just off Sicily. It’s also talking about Vietnamese refugees coming from Vietnam in the late eighties and very early nineties, who were called Vietnamese boat people and were leaving their country for a better life. I'm trying to gain empathy for these people, because it's a human right to try and seek a better life for oneself.
Rail: The work that you do utilizes symbols of power, coat of arms and heraldry, masonic symbolism, and things that you may not necessarily attribute to symbols used by Black artists. Instead, people often over-simplify Black art and, even more so, Caribbean art. How and why did you begin to incorporate these symbols into your work?
Locke: I’m fascinated by invented symbols of power, and heraldry is just that. I started using these symbols just on instinct. Still, I realize now that it's coming from a background of growing up in Guyana and seeing the coat of arms being made at Independence and learning the importance of the jaguar symbol to our culture. Later, I started asking what it means to be British. I then started using the image from my passport, being very conscious that it is not only a symbol of power but also a symbol of desire. It is very similar to the US passport coat of arms because both the US passport and British passport are very desirable documents. People were literally dying to get to a certain point where they could get one of these documents, and how privileged I am to have this thing—at the same time, being aware that it symbolizes complex and messy histories. I did a number of images replacing this central imagery with skull and crossbones. It’s cliche in a way, but it’s how you do it, not what you do. I was very much aware that these are power symbols, and they've been used as power symbols in the case of the UK for centuries.
Rail: Yes, when I look at your work, I see duality in what you present to the viewer. On one end, there's a fascination with the spectacle of excess and grandeur that categorizes these traditional symbols of power, but on the other hand, there’s an awareness of the hollowness and even decay that exists right beneath the surface. I see this in your works Immortal (2001), Island Queen (2003), and your “Souvenir” series, so can you speak to this duality and how you reconcile it in your work?
Locke: I started doing this work by instinct. Sometimes when you start doing something, if you question it too much, you could end up in trouble. There’s always a reason not to do something. It took me a while to bring back all the memories of the Queen’s head on my exercise books at school in Guyana. A mustache, beard, and glasses were added to the figure. Of course, my teachers were not very happy. How could I do this? But then, of course, it’s the same thing children do to photos of the president or any powerful political figure. So that was the memory origin. It’s about a central figure as a representation of a country.
In Britain, there’s a prime minister, of course, but the Queen is head of state, and that's an unusual position. She’s the head of the armed forces. People are fighting out there in Afghanistan and Iraq for “Queen and country.” It’s a strange concept. I’m not criticizing this authority. I just observe these things almost like an outsider, thinking this is interesting or strange and complex.
The excess comes from a love of Baroque, but the decay comes from this idea of things falling apart. It is almost like a seething undergrowth of things beneath the surface. It also relates to the medieval times when you would have a portrait of the king or queen, and there could be a symbol of death nearby, a memento mori, or a symbol that life is transitory.
With the “Souvenir” series, I started reworking the antique busts of Queen Victoria and turning them into fetish objects, covering them in metals and making them beautiful and messy. The cliche way of working with antique busts would have been to take them, dip them in black paint and stick sequins on top. That's contemporary art 101 of how to deal with the situation. I'm like, no, let's do something more complicated than that. Let's surround the image with its history but still have a beautiful image there. These images of these Parian busts are white to creamy-colored marble because they're trying to replicate—for the middle classes in England—stuff that upper classes would buy on their grand tour of Italy. So they are these mass-produced things that were popular at the height of the Empire. It’s very complicated.
Rail: In your “How Do You Want Me?” series, we see elaborate works full of found objects like dolls, beads, weapons, various fabrics, coats of arms, etc. that work to significant effect in transporting the viewer into a world that is familiar, but is—for lack of a better word—strange. I’m curious about your process of creating these works and what inspired this series.
Locke: What inspired this is quite simple. I wanted to make a series of works where people were looking at me, looking at them. In all these images, it’s me in a costume, and I wanted them to confront me rather than look at something nice on the wall. This series is from 2007, and things have changed in the art world. I was trying to make something whereby I asked people, “Well, how do you want me? I could do what you want. Give me a show. Give me a gig.” It comes from a time when curators were saying, “You know, Gabon is the place right now; those Gabonese artists are really making some great work,” and then another would say, “Gabon is not the place; Zimbabwe is the place.” And yet another would say, “Let's forget Africa altogether; those guys in Bolivia are turning out some great stuff.” So in this environment, I’m saying, “Well, how do you want me? I'm here.” You don’t need to get on a plane for your exotic stuff because I'm here. Also, I'm part of that as well because I’m also trying to incorporate the latest things. So it's a comment on various trends and fads within the art world. “How do you want me” is a common photography thing. How do you want me to stand: like this, like this, or like that?
Rail: I really like that series. It’s one of my favorites of yours. So in 2020, there was this whole conversation about monuments during the pandemic. People were asking for monuments celebrating various individuals who turned out to be on the wrong side of history to be removed. Two years before, in 2018, you engaged in your own protest of controversial monuments in your show Patriots. And very soon, you will be transforming a sculpture of Queen Victoria in the UK.
Locke: First of all, I can't talk about that project right now.
Rail: Ok, cool, no worries. We can talk about your series “Patriots” in 2018, and also, the question is more about you telling me how engaging monuments and statues have become a significant part of your practice. So you can just talk about it generally if you want.
Locke: So, the “Patriots” came about after the statue thing had kicked off in New York. I’ve been working the statue angle for years. I did a piece in 2006 about the statue of Edward Colston. It’s a photograph of the statue, and on it is decorated imagery connected with Colston, cowrie shells from slavery, and stuff like that. “Patriots” was interesting because, as I said, I had been working with statues, but this was about America. Then, one may have argued that this is old hat, but to me, that wasn't the case. I felt there was still a lot in this statue debate in the US.
In New York, it was interesting because the one statue I photographed there to work on was of Marion Sims, the so-called father of gynecology who experimented on enslaved women. What was interesting to me was that I took that photo, and we started working with that image, and about three weeks after that photo was taken, the statue was taken down.
I was interested not only in statues associated with racism but also statues associated with anti-Semitism. The last Dutch governor of New York, Stuyvesant, basically didn’t want Jewish people living in New York at all. I thought it was interesting to make a point about statues that were not just about race but race and anti-Semitism. Sometimes I feel the two things are basically the same. Stuyvesant made significant efforts to stop some Jewish people from leaving Brazil to come to New York, but then the decision was made to keep that statue. There is one in New Jersey and one in New York, but still, it's tense. There's also a Christopher Columbus statue just outside Central Park. What do you do with these things? It's complex and problematic. Personally, I think it's down to local people to decide.
Rail: I just read an article about a nationalist in Cameroon. What he's doing is going around Cameroon and is basically just chopping the heads off of all the statues of these colonial leaders of the past. He holds the heads of these statues and takes pictures in front of them. I don't know how he does it, but he finds ways to chop the heads off all these statues cleanly. To me, it's interesting because he's not doing it with any artistic practice in mind. He’s doing it solely with a political and nationalistic agenda.
Locke: To me, what’s interesting is that this is what the Romans did. The Romans were very economical people. One emperor dies, and a new emperor comes in and wants to remove certain signs of the previous emperor. So they just chop the head of the statue off and replace it with the new emperor's head. Why waste it? It saves a lot of time, and it’s an instant quick fix.
Rail: Your work, The Procession at Tate Modern, is your largest work to date. It also feels like it’s firmly built atop the works you have done in the past and, to me, feels like a crystallizing moment for your practice. Can you tell me about how it came to be, the time it took to create, and your process of making the figures? Potentially highlight one or two of the figures in the procession and their significance to you as an artist.
Locke: The Procession came about as some things come about by a simple phone call or email; I can't remember which one. The curators asked whether I'd be interested in doing this, and of course, I was interested. They were like, you’re not competing with anyone else for this, which was great, and I proposed my ideas, one of which was accepted. So first there was a massive wave of excitement for about three months or so, and then fear kicks in because you realize the space is massive. It’s the length of a small city block, and it’s a very complex space. It’s like a mausoleum inside, and it’s a neoclassical space that runs down the whole length of the bloody museum. I saw this exhibition that could eat my career and had the potential to destroy me, you know.
Slowly but surely, I started working on this exhibition with assistants, and it’s also important to note that we were on lockdown with COVID raging throughout the country. It was a nightmare situation for many people, so we had to figure out how to do this. We started in January of 2021 on Zoom. So I'm working but having my assistants working for me on Zoom, and I am sending information and materials to them. Eventually, I got a space big enough to work with a bit of social distance, but it was very stressful. I knew it was all working out when I had forgotten some of the early figures that we made. You know you're alright when you’ve got so much stuff that you forget some of the things you already created.
One of the figures that I would like to talk about is the figure with a circular skirt. She is Mother Sally, a Guyanese masquerade figure, and on her skirt there are abandoned crumbling plantation houses in Guyana and an image of Skeldon Sugar Factory and how it looks today. Sugar, which was once this huge thing in the Caribbean and in Guyana, is not as important today. I also remember going to Trinidad in the mid-2000s for a short trip, and I was shocked to see sugar cane fields rotting. That was quite a shock, and to see the same thing happening in Guyana when the backbone of the country was built on sugar. It’s almost like the economy has changed. Things evolve, things change, markets change, and market demands change.
Also, you see images of people walking down the street from Victorian illustrations. These people are Indo-Guyanese. One or two of them look as if they're “just off the boat,” as you would say. If you separate this figure, you would never know that he was not in India. But then you look at how some people dress, and it's not what you've seen before. Your head ties and other clothing are very, very different. The Mother Sally figure has a shirt, and the shirt is made of a sepia photograph of cane cutters, but from the late nineteenth century in Jamaica.
Now we have to understand that Tate Gallery made its money on sugar trading, but it's imperative to say that it was not during the slave trade. It's afterward, but they benefited from the remnants of slavery. Not just that, anybody who is from Guyana knows that late nineteenth century to early twentieth-century indentureship was quite grim. The sugar business in the Caribbean was rough. There are no slaves anymore, but people are still working for the company store in a way. So that particular piece, for me, is quite significant. When you’re coming to the end of a project, that’s when things start to reveal themselves more. Once we got that piece down, the desire was to create more because you can't stop at one, and it worked.