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At ICA’s Watershed, Hew Locke’s rough pageant of humanity

“The Procession,” a 140-mannequin mob made by the artist Hew Locke in 2022 for the Tate Britain, explodes with color and life. Just arrived at the ICA’s Watershed on Boston Harbor, it’s a riotous group, from towering superhuman idols to child-size imps; horses meander here and there through the visual din. But the scene is laced with a particular dread tailored to the artist’s primary concerns.

Raised in British Guyana and now, at 64, living in Edinburgh where he was born, Locke has led a crosscontinentallife that spans not just geography but the palpitations of a transnational world forever in flux. He weaves into the lively costumes and masks that his figures wear a narrative of dominance and submission, have and have not — a global dynamic begat by colonialism that still gives shape to the world we live in now.

At the far back of the parade, which snakes in clusters and bunches the half-football-field length of the Watershed, a 12-foot-tall idol looms over a child figure patched in bright colors and clutching a doll-size skeleton in a tiny canoe. Towering above, it seems almost to be herding the rest from behind, guiding their unruly march to the unknown. Its headdress — a jagged, towering thing, part military, part high-holy garb — and tunic are festooned with historical images of Jamaican sugar cane workers.

Its skirting, cascading a half dozen feet from its waist, bears the blown-up imprint of a stock certificate from the West India Improvement Company, a late-19th-century American venture to build a railway to transport bananas from the Jamaican interior to boats waiting to ship them back to the US. It failed, Locke explained, because Jamaica was British territory; the colony’s spoils were meant to serve them first. Walking the installation earlier this week, Locke, tall and rangy, with a mop of dark chin length curls and a soft, Caribbean lilt, could offer just as full a description of each and every one of the figures here. Their references are almost always specific and deeply researched. But as a mass, they form a patchwork ensemble emblematic of the contemporary world’s lurch from a dark past to a fractious present.

Commerce and culture overlap in ugly ways; Locke is fond of historical stock certificates as tableaux for painted-on scenes of human consequence. In one grouping, stocks issued by the French Compagnie Universelle to build the Panama Canal stand as a relic of its brutality and ultimate failure (an American company finished the job); hoisted like a flag by a troupe of mysterious red-hooded figures, the stock certificate is painted with wide-eye workers terrorized by demonic masters. The skirting for another towering figure is a fabric imprinted with a $1,000 Greek Government 7th Refugee Loan of 1924, a national bond issued to raise money for the resettlement of refugees after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Locke has painted onto its text a canoe-shaped vessel steered by weary-looking men; around them, skeletons dance in grim reverie.

But “The Procession” also implies movement more broadly, across not only oceans and continents but time and political era. “Then is now, now is then” is one of the key points Locke means to make. It should be impossible to take in this specific scene without visions of refugees from Syria in recent years crowding makeshift boats in desperate hope of making it to Greece, and farther into Europe.