As Hew Locke's vision of an imagined future storms The North, we look at his patchwork spectre of History, really beginning.
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History.
— Derek Walcott, The Sea is History
Derek Walcott’s The Sea is History is one of those arcane pieces of poetry that brushes up against the limitations of critical analysis, defying explanation, and instead descends upon something much deeper—something perennial—inside. I could write myself in circles, spiralling into fathomless, Delphic avenues of thought about why it’s so good when, really, it just is. It’s this trait, and Walcott’s recondite comparison of the journey of African slaves from the Caribbean shores to the flight of the Jews seeking the Promised Land in the Old Testament, that flowed forth into the palatial Duveen Galleries in the heart of Tate Britain, in what Hew Locke, the recipient of last year’s Tate Britain Commission, calls an invitation to “reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people and finance and power.”
Like Walcott, Locke picks at the festering scabs of colonialism and tattoos the violent control of ‘pioneers’ into the bruised flesh of his art. With work appearing in two major exhibitions flanking both sides of the Thames—his marching band procession of ambassadors from an imagined Utopia also featured in Hayward Gallery’s In the Black Fantastic—Locke’s The Procession conquered my curiosity with unnameable masked figures adorned in the appliqué regalia of a neoclassical cabaret in a way that I could best (and perhaps the only way I can) describe as 'noisy', filling in the chalk outlines of fish bone air-raids and separation. In Walcott’s poem, a white master asks his slave “But where is your Renaissance?” Forty-four years later, I’m looking at it, and Hew Locke is the name on the tongue of every gallery-goer in London.
His stolid cavalry stands stiff like monuments to a fierce, lancing fatalism, but deep in my tissue I feel the vibration of bells ringing, of war drums booming, lungs filling with a salt chuckle and blood mid-scream, and of hooves splattering into foreign mud. I hear a celebration, a riot, a coronation, a wedding, a funeral; I hear mourning, fighting, and raving. I grew up in a colonised country, born on the east coast of Australia, and while my pale white skin meant I escaped the real sting of that heritage, moving to the UK when I was fifteen and seeing the other side of that at such a young age meant I also saw just how silently that scorpion strikes. It wasn’t as if it was spoken about in hush-hush tones, but where that poisonous history seeped into our soil and mixed in with blood and rose up through bare soles, in the UK there is nothing but a void; it’s not spoken about at all. Where the ghosts in my home country carry horror stories through the wind and the waves, here the ghosts are too afraid to crack through the brick and mortar of ancient buildings lest more of their statues fall into shallow waters.
Born in Edinburgh, Locke spent his formative years as a boy in Guyana, a country which takes its name from an indigenous word meaning “Land of Many Waters”, bordered by both the Amazon and Orinoco rivers as well as the Atlantic Ocean. His time in Guyana is a vivid influence on his work, with imagery of disappearing colonial architecture in Guyana strewn throughout The Procession, yet there is never a sense of bondage between Locke and any fixed time or place; here, within the frigid white walls of the gallery space, is the echo of history, a room full of mirrors where every turn throws back an image of infinity and where even a whisper bounces back on itself returning like a scream. Here stands Locke’s army, like soldiers who are out of time, both going somewhere and returning, of both the past and the future: a carnival militia standing tall and refusing to budge.
The work is conceived and executed on an oceanic scale, but any division created by waters Locke wants to eschew in the hope for unity (ships are a key iconography sewn into a lot of Locke’s work), even if that means pushing his ideas and figures into the realm of the baroque. Locke seems to stay particularly silent on the meanings of his work because, as with Walcott, explanations become endless and there is always something more that can be said. It has long been said that wordlessness is isolation, and to be silenced is to not exist. But they do exist. They always have. And there have always been Lockes quietly conjuring magick spells more guttural and truer than what you can read in any poem or artist's statement, without the need for uttering any incantations, or for words at all.