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At Tate Britain, Hew Locke Powerfully Reckons with Colonialist Histories and Their Lingering Aftereffects

In the central hall of Tate Britain’s Neo-Classical home are dozens of figures who are caught mid-step as they process, perhaps out of the museum’s hallowed galleries and out into the surrounding area. Is this a parade of some kind? Carnival, perhaps? Or are these elaborately dressed people mourning a lost family or friend, whose funeral they are either departing or attending?

These figures are part of Hew Locke’s The Procession, this year’s commission for a site-specific work by a contemporary British artist. His piece is deliberately ambiguous, leaving it open to many different interpretations, all of them intriguing. The overall effect is spectacular.

In a parade, you would typically stand still as the revelers zoom past you. Here, however, viewers are the ones who walk the length of the procession. In doing so, you’re able to admire the exquisite details paid to their costumes, headdresses, and banners.

Locke’s Procession begins with child drummers, a flutist, figures on horseback, and women in voluminous dresses that makes them appear as they are floating above the crowd. Their garments range from sleek black suits to quilt-like skirts made from brightly colored and patterned fabrics. Locke has described the piece as an “extended poem.”

But this is no ordinary procession. Instead, it’s one that contends directly with Britain’s colonial history and its violent ends. It pays close attention to Henry Tate, the sugar refinery merchant whose wealth was created through the transatlantic slave trade, however indirectly, and whose donation of art during the 19th century helped establish what is today Tate Britain.

In an interview with curator Elena Cripp published by Tate Etc., Locke, who also currently has the façade commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said he was spurred to create the piece after witnessing the press briefing for another Tate Britain show, 2015’s “Artist and Empire.”

“The line to toe was laid out: that Henry Tate … made his money from sugar cubes, but had nothing to do with slavery, as it was after abolition,” Locke told Crippa. “Bish bosh, move on, the oracle had spoken, and there was no blame or guilt at the gallery to do with sugar and its problematic history. And I kept thinking, this feels uncomfortable. It was a statement that I had difficulty with.”  

For over a decade, Locke has collected certificates of company shares for firms that are long defunct, like the Jamaica-based West India Improvement Company or the Black Star Line, a shipping company founded by Marcus Garvey that was part of the Back-to-Africa movement. Images of the former have been used to create garments for several of the figures, while a picture of the latter certificate is exhibited here, blown-up at a huge scale and paired with an archival photograph of sugar cutters in a field, who labor away as workers load bananas onto a boat. The figure holding this banner wears a garment that has incorporated into its design the infamous 1788 illustration of the Brooks Slave Ship, which showed the inhumane conditions in which Africans, densely packed together, were held below deck on their way to be sold into slavery.

Other elements within this grand installation explore the history of the Haitian revolution that led to the country’s independence in 1804; our ongoing climate disaster, which is intimately related to colonialist violence in Global South; and monuments to Empire, in particular those that exist in Guyana, where Locke’s father (also an artist) was born and where Locke lived from around 5 until 20, when he returned to the U.K. for art school.

There’s much to glean from this work and the various, connected histories that bind us together in this now-globalized world, no matter how disparate those lineages may initially seem.

“I’m proposing a complex history,” Locke adds in the Tate Etc. interview. “There are lots of messy nuances in history, so my commission is like a spider’s web, with one thing linking to another. You may think, this doesn’t link to that, but for me, even if it’s not necessarily literal, there’s a poetic link. You’re talking about a global situation and that’s even more relevant now because of climate change and how that connects us all.”