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Sound Of The Crowd: The Procession By Hew Locke
Gair Burton , August 20th, 2022 08:42

A large-scale commission for Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries presents a teeming humanity bursting out of the lacunae of history

“What I try to do in my work is mix ideas of attraction with ideas of discomfort – colourful and attractive, but strangely, scarily surreal at the same time.” —Hew Locke, 2022

A spectacle of dizzying flamboyance and spectral energy takes centre stage at Tate Britain this spring and summer. The Procession by Hew Locke presents a sea of people that surges forward to meet and engulf the viewer. Numbering over 150 sculpted figures, featuring men, women and children, the work is simultaneously monumental and human scaled, taking Tate’s capacious neo-classical Duveen galleries as it’s starting point to explore the trappings of nationhood and the ways in which communities come together to lighten the weight of history.

Intended by the artist “to reflect on the cycles of history and the ebbs and flows of cultures, people, finance and power”, there is nothing uniform or orderly about Locke’s procession. Each person is individuated while playing their part in the crowd and their sculptural realisation is deliberately irregular. Some are beating drums, bearing banners and weapons, or riding on horseback. Some are outfitted in black, masked and menacing. Others are joyous in the acid red, yellow and green of the Guyanese flag. Still others are in clothes seemingly bought from the high street. Some have features and faces carved out of cardboard, while others have flowers that bloom from their faces and are bedecked in patchwork robes and ribbons bright as the plumage of tropical birds. Many bear clothes, banners and other belongings in custom-made fabric stamped with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century share certificates of the commodities that flowed from the slave trade, such as the sugar money made by the Tate gallery’s founding benefactor Henry Tate.

Crowd scenes are rare in sculpture, the realisation of innumerable individual figures in three-dimensional form too difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Yet Locke’s procession succeeds in realising what Walt Whitman termed “the rolling ocean of the crowd” as a sculptural spectacle. Each person commands their own space while convincingly cavorting as part of a group. To circle around and between these figures is to experience a satisfyingly complex composition in the round – as though one were able to walk through Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People or among the throng of James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels. Painting comparisons are apt because of the sheer exuberance of colour on display: in the abstract expression of the patch-worked banners and costumes, the technicolour hues of suits made of tattered cloths and Locke’s over-painting and reworking of nineteenth-century graphic imagery. All come together as a collaged whole coalescing around each viewer.

Conceived as “an epic poem of images and ideas”, Locke’s references are multiple and irreducibly multicultural. Indian, Indo-Caribbean and British influences swim together in The Procession, autobiographically reflecting his Guyana childhood experiences – where he arrived, aged five, by boat from Edinburgh, just in time to witness the ceremonial handover and celebrations of independence from Britain – and the themes that have preoccupied him since: colonial adventures and the concomitant wealth, realised through commodities created on the back of slave labour; military and medals and the relationship between the pomp of nation-building and ordinary lives; the ebb and flow of fortunes over time; and boats as a metaphor for life. Imagery from Locke’s previous works including Cardboard Palace, his ongoing Sovereign and Share series and The Tourists, a 2015 intervention on board HMS Belfast, float alongside carnival figures and tropes such as Day of the Dead Celebrations and the Caribbean characters of ‘Pitchy-Patchy’, ‘Mother Sally’, ‘Midnight Robber’ and ‘Sailor Mas’.

Throughout, Locke’s imagery is emphatically material, formed from a vocabulary of real world things full of lived associations and an implicit price. From the uncanny dressing of figures in actual shoes, clothes and cheap plastic jewellery, to the reams of colourful fabrics available from shops around London fashioned into fabulous costumes, to the elevation of cardboard from disposable packaging substance to a medium of DIY self-expression that taps into childhood memories of play and invention, Locke’s sculptural materials disclose their origins and our relationships to them. Poignantly this includes items from history – the authentic share certificates for the Black Star shipping company, for instance; the graphics from the Brook Slave Ship first published in 1788 that infamously revealed the inhuman conditions of its human cargo; and late nineteenth-century photographs of sugar cane cutters and workers loading bananas for export. Appropriated and over-painted by Locke, these relics of Black oppression are shown as so much unavoidable historical flotsam and jetsam, their symbolisms still potent in spite of their now defunct financial value.

A glimpse through The Procession to a Henry Moore sculpture across the hall of a mother, father and child, all hewn out of the same large stone, emphasises just how heterogenous Locke’s artistic language is, how freighted his materials are with messy meaning and invention. Locke’s is an aesthetics of more rather than less, of aggregation and inclusion in which humanity is shown in all its ragtag splendour and defiant difference; his people the flamboyant flip side to the white sugar refinement of Tate’s original founder.

Towards the back of the crowd, Locke's figures appear to have journeyed through water, their clothes marred by salty tide-marks. Carrying banners depicting Guyana, their movement becomes explicitly linked to the human cost of environmental catastrophe of flooding caused by global warming in this country whose name means “Land of Many Waters” and where 90% of the population already lives a metre below the level of the sea. Part pageant, part protest march, The Procession is also a migration of peoples that sweeps its viewers within its swells. On reaching the end of the Duveen Galleries, I turn backwards towards the entrance of the museum, now facing the same direction as the crowd and walking abreast with its irrepressible individuals – a part of this seething sea of people that bears the weight of the past while marching forward to meet the future.

Hew Locke, The Procession, is at Tate Britain until 22 January 2023