Edinburgh-born artist Hew Locke grew up in Guyana. His work builds upon his own heritage and experience to provide insight into the themes of colonial and post-colonial power. Part of European colonial competition since the sixteenth century, Guyana fell under British control in 1814. Locke witnessed the birth of independent Guyana in 1966, and his work explores the ways in which artists created and expressed nationhood.
Locke employs a variety of symbols in his work to explore colonialism and its legacy as well as themes of cultural identity. He uses modern materials in a range of media (painting, photography, sculpture, installation) to consider the impact of a wide array of historical phenomena. His work alludes to the European ‘age of discovery’ as well as the roots, height, and downfall of British imperialism. He identifies with the Windrush generation, commenting on the mass migration of people from the Caribbean to Britain in the wake of the second world war, and considers their ongoing struggles with national identity. The layering of materials in his work reflects the complex variety of past and present realities he explores.
Locke has layered paint over a photograph of the statue of Queen Victoria in his hometown of Georgetown in Guyana. During the socialist uprising of 1970, the statue was dumped in the Georgetown Botanical Gardens before being restored in 1990. The painted images of skeletons and oppressed peoples over the monument symbolise the exploitation of native peoples under empire. Queen Victoria’s statue becomes a symbol of the oppressive and exploitative nature of colonialism.
This work also provides a fascinating insight into how Guyana relates to its own past and nationhood. The act of dumping the statue represents the casting off of more than a century of oppression; however, its restoration shows how British imperialism forms an inescapable part of Guyana’s nationhood and cultural identity. Perhaps the faded, almost ghostly figures indicate that, despite this statue’s restoration, the past cannot be forgotten or ignored.
This series is made up of a collection of busts of Queen Victoria and her family, like those displayed in middle class Victorian homes. Thus, they represent British cultural identity and symbolise imperial pride.
Locke ornaments these busts with a collage of lace, metal, and various symbols of colonialism. He includes military badges and medals from the Benin campaign and the Ugandan and Zulu wars. These bloodthirsty wars of the late nineteenth century destroyed African kingdoms and cultural traditions in the name of British imperial domination. By draping these busts with medals, Locke illustrates the heavy burden of history and the atrocities enacted in the name of British imperialism.
Not only do these busts symbolise the formation of British identity, and the warlike nature of colonialism, they also symbolise the loss of native cultures. Cowrie shells can also be found in the collage. In the past, these shells were used throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa as a form of currency. These are juxtaposed with English coins, stamped with the image of the royal family, to show how native cultures were stamped out and replaced by symbols of British imperialism.
FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA
Timeless and universal, boats can be extremely evocative. They symbolise travel, trade, and warfare and are employed by Locke to explore themes of globalisation and colonialism. This haunting installation comprises 70 miniature boats hanging from the ceiling, filling an entire room. The procession of ships travels through the air, noticeably bereft of sailors and passengers.
A mixture of contemporary and historical boats, this installation symbolises the timeless nature of sea travel. Boats become symbols of hope, danger, happiness, and despair. Thus, these pieces constitute a memorial for all of the lives touched by global sea travel and its consequences.
Another large-scale installation, made up of cord and plastic beads glued to the wall, Locke’s Sea Power is truly awe-inspiring.
This piece uses the symbolism of boats to reflect on the very roots of colonialism, the so-called European ‘Age of Discovery’. It draws on ancient and Renaissance imagery as well as images of contemporary shipping and oil refineries. The skeletal imagery illustrates the exploitation, warfare, and suffering made possible by European discovery and sea travel. The legacy of imperialism, in the form of globalisation and consumerism, or ‘neo-colonialism,’ is also visible. Thus, in this piece, Locke utilises the symbol of the boat to point to the centrality of sea travel in colonialism and its ongoing legacy.
Royalty and boats are only two of many symbols employed by Locke to explore themes of colonialism and national identities. The juxtaposition of modern materials and historical subject matter sheds light on the ongoing legacies of European colonialism. Such symbols are so important to his work that his own website is categorised in this way.
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This blog post was written by Lucy Green, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.
I graduated with a history degree from the University of Birmingham in June 2020, specialising in seventeenth-century Anglo-Ottoman relations and the European ‘Age of Discovery’. I have a strong passion for history and art and hope to complete a Master’s degree in museum studies to pursue a career in heritage.
I am particularly interested in seeing how art speaks to historical movements and themes. The exhibition Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing, held at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in Spring 2019 spurred my interest in this artist and spoke to my historical interests in colonialism and its lasting legacy.