Interview: At home with Hew Locke

Hew Locke’s work – anchored in past events but shockingly contemporary – asks us not to romanticize but to question our history. The London-based artist, who spent his childhood in Guyana, received widespread acclaim for his epic commission at Duveen Galleries in Tate Britain. the procession consists of a wave of nearly 100 masked, costumed, life-size figures in a carnival-like clash of color and theatre. Beneath this gloss of celebration are more complex themes that Locke has long explored: racism, war, migration, capitalism, nation, empire, colonialism, and its lingering remnants.

For the Birmingham 2022 Festival, the artist installed a redesigned sculpture of Queen Victoria depicting the monarch herself being shipped across the empire. Commissioned by gallery Ikon, currencies is Locke’s first temporary public sculpture and will be on display in situ until August 15, 2022. In September, the artist takes up the sacred facade of New York’s Met Museum with a series of sculptures that capitalize on the museum’s collection.

Locke’s work is static but seems to move; is quiet yet cacophonic; attractive yet deeply uncomfortable. This is human history and culture in its rich, complex and ‘messy’ variety – and not necessarily how we know it.

Hew Locke stands for currenciesa temporary public artwork presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival commissioned by Ikon. Photo by Shaun Fellows. Courtesy of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon

Wallpaper*: Where are you right now?

hey locke: Sitting in the lime green front room of my attic apartment (an awkward place to live for someone tall). I see old photos of parents and my in-laws’ wedding photos from the 1950s. Above the radiator is a mirror and frame that my brother made, with a prehistoric Guyanese design called Timehri. There are two lists full of Guyanese stamps. My mother’s impressionist painting of the Oxford Hotel in Georgetown hangs on a wall behind me. From the open window I can hear young children and teenagers on their way to Brockwell Park.

W*: What’s the last thing you read, watched, or listened to?

HL: Over the past few months, I’ve been working my way through every episode of the 80s and 90s sitcom Desmond’s, which is repeated on Netflix. Set in a barbershop in Peckham, it follows a Guyanese-British family and plays the trailblazing Guyanese actor Norman Beaton. Well written, it uniquely captures a part of the 1990s, often focusing on the tensions between the original Windrush generation, their UK-born descendants and racism. But most of all, it’s just really funny! It cheers me up every day.

W*: What is the most important object you own?

HL: My British passport. This document gives me access to the world that many people cannot.

Hew Locke, ‘Here’s the Thing’, 2019, Ikon. Thanks to the artist and Ikon. Photography: Tom Bird

W*: What was the first piece of art you remember seeing, and how did it make you feel?

HL: A stoneware model house made by my mother, Leila. She loved drawing and painting and sculpting the beautiful wooden Guyanese houses – a love I inherited. I was fascinated to see how a highly detailed, everyday object – a house – could be simplified and abstracted, but still remain a house. I had never seen clay used for anything other than plates and cups.

W*: You spent part of your early years in Guyana. How has this period affected your work?

This can be seen in my use of heightened colors and my subject matter; for example, my boat and house sculptures and paintings are directly based on my childhood in Guyana. When I arrived at the age of six, the country was preparing for independence – and I was fascinated by all the new symbols of nation that were being created. This included the currency, stamps, flag, coat of arms and anthem – all from the start. I literally entered a new world, and this interest in national symbols has stayed with me.

W*: Your work is rooted in global histories and geographies, especially those associated with colonial and post-colonial power. Why is exploring and recalling past events so important to our present?

HL: The past informs the present. Every time we forget, we are reminded of it. The history and war in Ukraine is just one example. It’s interesting to see that the last few Caribbean countries are thinking about removing the Queen as head of state – there has been a shift lately in the way certain countries see themselves. And statues tumble there too. It is important that we do not romanticize the past, for example the history of the British Empire.

Unfortunately, British society seems to have become divided into different and opposing camps as to whether we should talk about these histories at all. I would say that there is no reason for a person to fear that his ideas will be challenged. History is complex and messy, and that’s okay.

hey locke, the procession in Tate Britain. Photography courtesy of Tate

W*: Your Tate Britain Commission, the procession, has been widely acclaimed and touched a chord with many. What did it mean to you to get such a response?

HL: This piece was very difficult to produce, starting in lockdown, and the response means a lot to me. I’ve had very emotional people come up to me to talk about the piece and it’s a very emotional piece for me as well. For this piece in particular, I tried to create something that would reward a visitor who had stood up and paid money to travel to the Tate, to see something. I wanted to make sure their effort was worth it. And I also wanted to create something that would reward repeat viewings – to encourage people to keep coming back. As an artist, you never know how work will be received, so it was humbling to get this kind of feedback. Not only the press, but also strangers I meet on the street. I always wanted to take on the Duveen committee, but it was very scary. I could have failed badly – that’s the risk you take.

W*: Can you tell us about it? currenciesyour recent public installation in Birmingham city centre?

HL: My interest in statues of Victoria dates back to my childhood in Guyana, where a statue of her stood outside the High Court. In its lifetime, it was blown up by independence protesters in the 1950s, torn down in the 1970s and thrown in the back of the Botanic Gardens, reinstalled in the 1990s for the courts and red paint thrown over it three years ago. In the UK, on ​​the other hand, there has been a series of romantic depictions of Victoria’s life, such as: The young VictoriaMrs Brownand Victoria and Abdulto name a few.

In currencies, I show statues of Victoria being shipped from the Empire – as copies were in reality; she symbolized the stability of the empire. Although made by different highly skilled artists, they look largely the same. currencies is part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, which is part of the Commonwealth Games. I wanted to create something that resonated not only with the locals, of all backgrounds, but also with the athletes and visitors who have or had statues of Victoria in their own city. As always, even when I’m talking about disputed topics, I want to make the work as beautiful as possible.

Each statue wears a helmet, as Britannia does, and a medal relating to some of the many colonial wars that expanded and held the empire together. Although they are not well known in the UK, in the countries where they took place they are very important and I think we should know more about them. The medals mark the Conquest of Trinidad and Tobago, the Battle of Seringapatam, the Ashanti Wars, the Benin Medal and the Second Afghan War.

currencies by Hew Locke, a temporary public artwork presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival commissioned by Ikon. Photography by Shaun Fellows. Courtesy of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon

W*: How would you define the role of public art now?

HL: It can be anything.

W*: What advice would you give the next generation?

HL: It’s a bad idea to advise the next generation! But all I can think of is ‘enjoy what you’re doing’. A good piece of advice I got from a tutor was ‘always leave the studio with great enthusiasm and come back the next day’. That is, leaving the work at the stage of exciting unfinished business.

W*: Now what?

HL: Right now I’m looking forward to the opening of ‘In the Black Fantastic’ at the Hayward Gallery. I have a whole room of pictures and a series of equestrian sculptures called the ambassadors, which were started before the lockdown, put in storage and just completed. I’m also making some boats for a solo exhibition at PPOW gallery in New York, and working on a public art commission that will also be built on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum there in the fall. The Metropolitan piece is a series of sculptures made in the form of trophies, entitled ‘Gilded’ and based on their collection. I can’t say more about it at the moment, I’m afraid! You’ll just have to wait. I

Hew Locke, ‘Here’s the Thing’, 2019, Ikon. Thanks to the artist and Ikon. Photography: Tom Bird

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