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LONDON — The first thing that may strike viewers upon entering Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is a raucous spectacle of colors. More than 140 mannequins, festooned with fabric strips, elaborate masks, and cloth flags, are frozen in a vivid march through time. 

At first it looks like a carnival; but upon closer inspection the unruly throng reveals signs of a disturbing history. Interspersed between riotously posed figures, some of whose jutting legs precariously balance on stilts, are images that should prompt viewers to pause. Textile recreations of colonial-era maps, share certificates in imperial sugar corporations, and even advertisements for the Black Star Line jostle for space in this flamboyant procession.

This is The Procession — this year’s ambitious Tate Britain Commission by British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke. Through this spectacular display the 62-year-old artist has brought to life themes he has grappled with for the entirety of his long career. Colonialism, the ebb and flow of cultures via migration (chosen or forced), the intermingling of peoples and subsequent erasure of traditions under imperialism — all are present within the spectacle that now dominates the Duveen Galleries.

Cycles of history, and the idea of empire, have been central to Locke’s artistic interests and personal background. Born in Edinburgh in 1959 to a Guyanese father and an English mother, both artists, he inherited their talents. (His father, Donald Locke, was part of a concurrent exhibition at the Tate Britain exploring Caribbean-British art that closed in early April). The Locke family left for Guyana in 1966, on the eve of the former British colony’s independence.

Witnessing the birth of a nation, one that had to grapple with the tensions and struggles that beleaguer all formerly colonized nations — from establishing a cohesive constitution that reflects the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures introduced via empire to grappling with the nation’s immense impoverishment as a result of European colonialism — profoundly shaped Locke, something that becomes clear not only through the ideas he wrestles with, but in his methods too.

Locke returned to the UK to study art in 1980. This moment was a turning point in British art as artists of African and Asian descent began mobilizing to empower Black voices and champion their art. Inspired by anti-racist and feminist discourse, the British Black Arts Movement helped define a new generation of artistic talent in Britain. 

Unsurprisingly given his background, Locke’s oeuvre has been far more international than resolutely British. The Tate installation embodies this perfectly; it is a stunning, sensuous spectacle of light and color that, just like the grand tradition of Caribbean carnivals, hints at sinister elements for the observer to glean amid the meticulously orchestrated flamboyance.

Colonial share certificates from Jamaican sugar plantations and Nigerian goldmines, reproduced in textile shawls that drape demonically masked figures, highlight tangled webs of international commerce and finance, and how capitalism as a system evolved out of colonial practices and racist violence. 

This colonial ephemera adorns much of the clothing that drapes the figures. Textile maps that show how the African continent and the Caribbean were divided by imperial companies embellish the back of blazers; a stock certificate for £5000 issued by the Jamaica Trading Company swaddles a figure in a mournful mask; a flag hoisted is a blown-up image of a gold bond issued by the Dutch-Asiatic bank on behalf of the Chinese Imperial Government. 

Amid the color and pageantry are dotted reminders of the material consequences of colonialism, and the systems of production, capitalism, and mercantilism they spawned. 

One of the first mannequins that visitors encounter is a drummer boy with a 1913 Russian General Oil Corporation share attached to the top of his drum — a reminder of the current conflict in Ukraine and the power that the Putin regime is able to exert thanks to its control of gas supplies. Grimly, the conflict adds weight to Locke’s career-long attitude that the interconnected histories of power, territory, trade, and oil live on long after empires fell.

Locke has made full use of the space provided to him. The Duveen Galleries are at the heart of Tate Britain — a vast, colonnaded hall with multiple egress points. As such, visitors will be able to spot and engage with different aspects of his work depending on where they enter the hall. These different viewpoints literally recontextualize the work: enter the gallery from a side entrance, for example, and you’ll suddenly catch sight of a pearl-strewn masked figure looking back at you, as well as the warship precariously balanced atop his head.

By incorporating this context into the work, Locke alludes to Tate Britain’s own decolonizing efforts over the last two years. The institution was founded by Henry Tate, a 19th-century British sugar magnate. Locke’s own incisive visualization of the colonial sugar industry in the form of a literal treasure chest held up by two mannequins takes on greater complexity and depth upon leaving through a side door, near a bust of Tate and the institute’s acknowledgement that, though he did not own slaves, his fortune was founded in a closely linked industry.

Arguably the best way to enjoy The Procession is to become a part of it. Rather than simply taking it all in at once, viewers will benefit from repeated visits. Crisscrossing each section highlights new facets and imagery sewn onto the back of coats, or a mask cheekily turning back against the flow of the crowd.

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

Among tiger-masked figures holding flags, ethereal, nymph-like figures adorned with flowers atop horses, and children playing musical instruments, their faces hidden behind stunning death masks, what seems initially like a celebration evokes a funereal procession by the end. The many troubled histories of Locke’s characteristic work touches upon contemporary crises: race, identity, and hostility toward refugees. 

On the surface, The Procession is a visual feast for the eyes; it’s only when you walk around the figures that a darker history emerges. Different narratives begin to influence perceptions of the art; learning about the artist’s attention to global warming, the paraders start to look a lot more like climate refugees fleeing with their meager possessions. Troubling though it may be, digging into these hints and fully engaging with Locke’s vast panoply is a rewarding and unmissable experience, one that adroitly reminds visitors that colonialism has an afterlife.

Hew Locke: The Procession continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through January 22, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Elena Crippa, senior curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art, and Clarrie Wallis, former senior curator, Contemporary British Art, with Bilal Akkouche, assistant curator, Contemporary British Art, Hannah Marsh, curatorial assistant and Dana Moreno, curatorial administrator.