For an antidote to the Jubilee parades look no further than Hew Locke’s The Procession, a spectacular installation at Tate Britain, writes Terina Hine
Entering the grand neo-classical central hall, visitors are met with the bejewelled brilliance of 150 human-sized figures, five horses and an array of flags and banners. The pageant is breathtaking. A carnival of colour, which upon closer inspection reveals a darker underside.
Reminiscent of the Day of the Dead carnivals held throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, The Procession is adorned with skulls and skeletons, masked characters walk with ghosts and phantoms. It is a parade of figures whose heads morph into hats, and whose costumes are interwoven with themes of imperial history, empire, war, trade and finance.
Flags and millinery appropriate military medals and obsolete share certificates, dresses are printed with images of child soldiers and the British imperial army. A commemorative medal from the second Afghan war, part of the Great Game between the British Raj and imperial Russia, is encased in the armour of a mounted knight. Robes bearing images of dilapidated Guyanese houses are flanked by formally dressed figures with tidemarks on their trousers as if they have waded through flood water. Images of sugar plantation workers adorn an enormous banner, which along with the sugar trade share certificates invoke the origins of the gallery itself, Tate’s fortune being founded on the sugar trade.
Taking full advantage of the vast space of the gallery’s central hall, visitors are invited to parade alongside the figures and march through our imperial past in all its multi-coloured horror. It is not a depressing spectacle for all its dark imagery, the garments are bright and flowers bloom from faces; and while some characters appear bent with the the weight of history, many others stand proud and dignified.
British-Guyanese artist, Hew Locke was born in Edinburgh in 1959. He lived in Guyana between the ages of 5 and 21; he returned to the UK to study and has lived here ever since. His work, exhibited around the world, explores themes of race, power and imperialism. In 2006, his Restoration project dressed statues in Bristol, including that of slave trader Edward Colston, who was draped in gold jewellery fashioned as small skulls, skeletons, and slave ships. Developing this theme, Locke’s 2018 American show Patriots decorated statues and monuments in what he described as an act of “mindful vandalism”. References to these earlier works are found repeatedly in the fabric of robes and banners on the parade - note the graffitied statues of Churchill and Queen Victoria, iconic representatives of the British Empire.
Locke’s work depicts an entangled history crossing epochs and continents. A history which is brought into the present with the final section. Dressed in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag, skirts embossed with the United Nations emblem, and sporting a replica Crimean War medal, two figures march directly behind a host of characters entirely in black, dripping with gold. They are led by child drummers banging the “Russian Imperial Oil” drums of war.
Subversive and colourful, The Procession is a masquerade, providing a visual exploration of empire with layer upon layer of history decoratively concealed. Beautiful and unsettling, a colourful carnival that exposes a dark truth.
Hew Locke, Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain, London, until 22 January 2023.
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