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Hew Locke’s Symbolic Gold Trophies Hoisted in Met Facade Commission

The commission's title, Gilt, puns on the motivation for art world scrambling to account for centuries of pillaging.

Four gold-painted fibreglass trophies by Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke were installed in recesses of the Metropolitan Museum's Beaux-Arts facade yesterday.

Created for The Met's Facade Commission, the Gilt sculptures reference politically-charged artefacts held in the museum's collection, including decorative tigers on a gun once owned by Tipu Sultan. Known as the 'Tiger of Mysore', Sultan fought back against the British East India Company in the 18th century.

Other references include the sea monster in Domenico Guidi's Andromeda and the Sea Monster (1694), a goblet possibly made with war booty seized by Eurasian steppe tribe the Avars, and the disembodied eyes often seen in mediaeval votive offerings.

Two of the four trophy sculptures are mere fragments, suggesting they were desecrated or broken stolen by rival powers. Locke's implication seems clear: to the victors go the spoils.

In recent years museums have increased their efforts to return artefacts of dubious provenance. Earlier this month, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office repatriated 58 artefacts to Italy, including 21 seized from The Met. Last year, the museum repatriated three objects to Nigeria, including a pair of Benin brass plaques.

'Hew Locke creates powerful, dynamic and beautiful work that deals with serious subject matter such as race, power, migration, and greed,' said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met.

Locke was born in Edinburgh in 1959, raised in Guyana, and now lives in London. Colonialism is a major theme of his work.

New York Times critic Holland Cotter described Locke's 2005 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which is assembled from dollar-store materials such as fake flowers, rubber lizards, and plastic toy guns and swords, as 'the most—maybe only—interesting one I've encountered'.

'Was the queen attacking or under attack? Blooming or rotting? The one sure thing was that she hooked the eye and held it', he said.

Cotter described Locke's practice, with its abundance of eyes, as similarly 'eye-engaging, which means mind engaging'.

'You look at art; art looks at you; you both change', he said. 'That's how it should be.'

Locke is the third artist to undertake The Met's Facade Commission, which launched in 2019. The others are Wangechi Mutu and Carol Bove.