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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Hew Locke: The Procession review – human history in all its variety | Art

They come surging towards you, wave upon wave, banners flying, drums rolling, a teeming pageant of men, women and children crowding through the grand marble canyons at the heart of Tate Britain. Soldiers, refugees and fishers, mechanics in overalls and dandies in dinner jackets, a green man crowned with chilli peppers, another dressed as a skeleton in a cardinal’s mitre. Pregnant girls, stooped sages, carnival queens in outsize dresses: none alike, and yet all alike, in this endless tide of humanity.

Hew Locke’s The Procession is a tremendous spectacle, stretching away into the distance, and it is his most profound endeavour. The 62-year old Guyanese-British artist has never worked on quite such a scale before, but it feels as if he was always ready. The museum expected 60 figures for its Tate Britain commission, but they just kept on coming, forming in Locke’s mind and studio during lockdown and beyond. Now there are almost 100 and each the size of life and fully as unique in its force of personality.

The Procession.
The drummers in The Procession. Photograph: Joe Humphrys/Tate

What connects them is the crisscrossing of politics, greed, race and history, Locke’s career-long preoccupations. His sculptures and installations have featured haunted ships and porcelain busts of British monarchs embellished with the sinister emblems of colonial oppression, from Benin bronzes to coins, deep-sea pearls and gilded skulls. Look closely at one of the dandies here and you will find William Blake’s devastating print of a hanged slave appliquéd to the back of his jacket.

And to some extent, you know where you are going at Tate Britain. The very first figure is a boy banging an old-fashioned drum, its skin made from a Russian General Oil Corporation bond, printed a century ago but more controversial than ever. The very last work, at the far end of the Duveen Galleries, involves a gauzy pavilion held aloft by benighted figures. The fabric is printed with spectral images of colonial buildings in Guyana, now derelict, and with stocks and shares in which land is sold, and with it people, enslaved on sugar cane plantations. Henry Tate’s museum was, of course, built on sugar.

But what is so remarkable about The Procession is its absorbing complexity; nothing is ever explicit. You notice the Russian bond, or the derelict buildings, as you might take in passing signs or conversations overheard on the street: as part of an infinitely various existence. Everything – everyone – is connected.

The figures come first and foremost. You come face to face with them, one after another, as you walk in the opposition direction through the galleries. Each is veiled or masked – sometimes extravagantly so, as if it were Halloween or Mardi Gras – yet it is not obvious whether some of these masks might be their true faces (at least one ruse of a carnival mask). And then again, nobody could mistake these figures for actual people, since they are so obviously created out of plaster, cardboard, papier-mache and so on. Some are dressed in existing clothes – school uniforms, army overcoats – others in outlandish costumes stitched out of an international ragbag of batik, tartan, sari silk, promissory notes, old embroideries and modern plastics. Something is being said here about ecology, too.

Two figures from The Procession.
Two figures from The Procession. Photograph: Guy Bell/Alamy

Locke’s mise-en-scène is superb. There are hints of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People at the front, figures rising and stumbling, hoisting a banner. A Day of the Dead parade sashays with skeletons, spectres and tiny devils in red velvet suits. Halfway through the galleries is a haunting funeral cortege, in which two slaves bear the death mask of an English general on poles, accompanied by diminutive figures in black crepe crinolines. The familiar shape of Queen’s Victoria’s pale jowls is just visible beneath each lace mourning veil.

By the subtlest shift of colour, Locke changes the mood. The figures at the back appear to have come through dust and flood, in their tarnished clothes. The march becomes a protest, becomes a mass migration. Everyone is trying to get somewhere or away from something.

The ‘funeral cortege’ section of The Procession.
The ‘funeral cortege’ section of The Procession. Photograph: Joe Humphrys/Tate

There is no defining figure; Locke is too subtle. You may find your own along the way. For me, it was a little boy in pyjamas printed with old school maps in imperial colours; a Rees-Mogg child, garbed in the past. And yet he turns backwards, as if confused. Locke’s figures – perfectly conceived to be viewed in the round – have all the sculptural virtues.

Locke has always worked with the public in mind and never the market. With its historical sweep and its deep concerns, his art tends to be shown in museums rather than commercial galleries. At Tate Britain, he has found a space large enough for the scale of this never-ending theatre of humanity, which could have gone on for ever (as of course it does).

And it all works brilliantly in reverse. Reach the end and you turn back to follow the crowd, now walking with them, bent on where they are going, hoping they will get there. Perhaps it is into the light flooding through the entrance. But before them rises the imperial architecture of Tate Britain. They will have to pass through its triumphalist arch to get there.

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