Ships; Hung, painted, framed, sculpted, detailed, intricate, exquisite, deadly, transporting, invading, they form the basis of Ikon’s captivating new exhibition by the Scottish-Guyanese artist Hew Locke.
Guyana translates to ‘land of many waters’, with ships taking centre stage in the country’s history. The artist would have arrived by boat and left by boat, as with the colonial powers that controlled the country for many years and the slaves taken from Africa to work there. The exhibition follows this tapestry of empire and exploitation, playfully dressing up a bust of Queen Victoria with colonial riches, beads and bracelets, golds and greens, along with four other colourfully adorned royal faces.
These beads have appeared before in the exhibition, hanging from the deeply layered illustrations on the walls of the first gallery. Figures of spiritual and mythical proportion, stood on skulls and with machine guns adorning their clothing, with monkeys watching from the floor as smaller figures appear to be hanged, create a scene as increasingly grotesque as it is beautiful. The exhibition space is once again transformed, the gallery walls have been made to be filled with Locke’s textured illustration, with the beads that hang from the stars glistening in the clinical lights of the white room. The stars prove an instrumental feature of the room, allowing for a natural flow and movement for the viewer to follow across its four walls. The exhibition leads into a film depicting the interior of the HMS Belfast, with mannequins dressed in exotic finery, preparing for carnival in a stereotypically militaristic and regimented environment.
Queen Victoria appears again. A powerful and emotive image of British rule, Victoria’s likeness is found across the world as she presided over the time when the British empire was expanding like never before, synonymous with violence and foreign riches. A statue hated, sunken, forgotten, and reinstated is reimagined in an oversaturated, over-colourful manner; the mustard yellow of the sky is etched with more death, more skeletons, with calypso music seeping into the lower half of the work, the drums just visible through the base of the statue. Hew’s work is rich with humour and a tongue in cheek attitude to his cultural history, it is easy to read the work in too serious a manner. The busts of the kings and queens are ridiculed, with their pomposity reduced to carnival ornaments. The artist has a fascinating command over both sides of his identity, dressing up the powerful in pineapple-like headgear, confronting his Guyanese self and his British self to produce totally original art.
Ships and ships again. The armada that closes the exhibition is made up of delicately made, intricately finished, carefully decorated, individual ships suspended from the ceiling, suspending the viewer in a limbo between above and underwater. The jewels adorn the ships as they do the busts in the previous room, dripping with gold chains and coins, they are a remnant of a violent and brutal past, of horrendous trade and continual exploitation. Hew Locke has produced a reflection of the land of many waters, traversing his identity with a humour and a seriousness unseen in much art today.
Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing is on from 8 March — 2 June 2019 at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.