Hew Locke’s mind is constantly whirring. Sometimes, says the artist, he’ll wake at 3am, turn to his sleeping wife and ask what she thinks about a project he is working on. “Don’t panic,” she’ll say. “I’m not panicking,” he’ll answer, “but I’m a perfectionist.” Binge-watching TV can help switch his mind off but only if it’s absorbing. If not, he says with a smile, “the wall behind my telly is my canvas”. His brain will project things on to it. For the last couple of months, his mind has been turning over a specific area of light in a Turner painting. “It’ll come out somewhere along the line,” he says. “It’s tiring, frankly. Sometimes it’s bloody exhausting.” He laughs.
Locke is “working harder than ever before” and he is absolutely delighted. His hugely ambitious work The Procession, a parade of 100 figures sweeping through Tate Britain, opened to rave reviews in March. This week, his new work Foreign Exchange opens for the Birmingham 2022 festival and Commonwealth Games. Locke has wrapped the city’s statue of Queen Victoria with a boat carrying the queen and five smaller replicas, each with a medal to signify battles fought in the British empire.
At 62, Locke is gaining recognition he has long deserved and the issues that have interested him for decades are about as timely as you can get: imperial power, the legacy of colonialism, the legitimacy of the monarchy, migration and contentious public art. Long before the existence of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston had reached the awareness of people outside Bristol – and before it was toppled in 2020 – Locke was using it, among others, for his 2006 piece Restoration. In this, he altered photographs of monuments, draping them in the spoils of their brutally acquired wealth, which – if you looked closer – included charged objects such as gold skeletons and slave ships. Now that society has caught up, Locke is allowing himself a small moment of satisfaction, but he adds: “It doesn’t mean I can sit back.”
We meet at his London studio, where two assistants are working on detailed models of boats for a New York piece – he has been decided to create new work for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum, which will be on view from September. He is also one of the artists featured in the forthcoming show exploring Afrofuturism, In the Black Fantastic, at the Hayward Gallery in London. Our conversation is punctuated by precise hammering.
His work is varied, including paintings, drawings and installations using materials that range from cardboard to bronze. For the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta he created The Juors12 bronze chairs to stand at Runnymede, with panels depicting key moments in the struggles for freedom and equality, ranging across countries and centuries. But boats are his constant. Growing up in Georgetown, Guyana, he was fascinated by the fishing boats just beyond the sea wall, and they have frequently featured in his work, from the late 1980s, when he was studying fine art at Falmouth, to 1999’s Hemmed In, which featured a vessel created in cardboard and jammed between the pillars of the V&A in London.
“If I didn’t make a boat at least every three years,” he says, “there was an imbalance in me. Now I make them all the time and I’m much happier.” What do they mean to him? “A whole bunch of complex things – hope, complex histories, migration.” He remembers traveling by boat from Guyana for a trip back to the UK in the early 1970s, “which I didn’t realise until many years later was bringing a post-Windrush generation to live here”.
He is drawn by their history, from Plato’s Ship of State analogy to the etymology of “the nave of a church. It means so many different things. A boat you can hold in your hand and your mind.” That’s what he hopes for his Birmingham work: “That people can hold it in their minds long after the piece has been taken down. It’s very important that it’s temporary. It becomes this strange mirage, this dreamlike memory.”
Setting sail with Queen Victoria “seemed like a logical thing – these Victoria statues would have been shipped around the world”. The five replicas around her in his new work reminded him of cartoons of the Virgin of Mercy in Christian art, the larger Mary surrounded by smaller devotees. “That’s almost like a mother figure with her offspring. There’s something emotionally evocative about that.”
Locke was born in Edinburgh and moved with his family to Guyana as a child. Both his parents were artists: his father was the Guyanese sculptor Donald Locke, his mother the English painter Leila Locke. “That’s the reason I thought it was a very bad idea,” he says with a laugh when I ask if he always knew he would be an artist. “When I was about 14 or 15, I said to my mum, ‘Look how we’re struggling.’ My parents had split up by then so that made finances tricky. I tried really hard not to be an artist, but one day I was in class, painting a hibiscus flower. After about 40 minutes, I realised I wasn’t painting it – I was creating it. Ever since, it has been something I couldn’t escape.” Now, he says, “I work for sanity. It’s not a career. It’s not even a vocation. It’s who I am.”
He came back to the UK when he was 21, spent four years as a filing clerk for a bank while doing adult education classes, then art school – first Falmouth, then an MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. For a while in the 1990s, he squatted and worked in an abandoned London hospital. The artist Yinka Shonibare also worked there, and it’s where Locke met his wife, the artist and curator Indra Khanna. “It was great,” he remembers. “Creative – but absolutely bloody freezing.”
Shortly afterwards, the Young British Artist movement “cast such a shadow – great work, but it obscured so many things.” Locke and other artists of color “felt there wasn’t a place for us, and so we had to make a place for ourselves.” He would talk about Guyana as the inspiration for some of his work, and: “As soon as I mentioned that, I could see people shifting me to the sidelines.” So he stopped talking about it. He also stopped using color for a while, because people would describe it as “exotic”. Then he started “making fake exotica, fake voodoo dolls and stuff like that. It was in response to the way I was being pitched, and I covered all my drawings with the word ‘export’, because the work had been determined to be exported from somewhere else, when it was from just around the corner.
As a child in Georgetown he would pass a statue of Queen Victoria every day on his way to school. The work had a contentious history: damaged protests during the 1950s, removed in 1970 to mark Guyana’s independence, then restored in 1990. Locke has long been interested in what statues mean. Does he agree with them being removed? “It’s complicated,” he says. “I can say no, but I can’t tell somebody in a US town who’s removing a Confederate statue not to. That’s a very different thing. I think it’s complex and it’s a case-by-case scenario.”
While Locke thought it was right to remove Colston, he adds: “It could have been removed without the drama. This statue was deeply problematic and offensive to a lot of people in Bristol – and nobody listened. I should say that I absolutely do not think that the Queen Victoria statue in Birmingham should be removed. That’s not what I’m talking about. The Colston statue was a particular set of circumstances.” In general, he thinks, removing statues is “not a good idea”. Why? He thinks for a moment. “Because you remove history, and you sweep something under the carpet, and that’s not a good thing.” He prefers discussion, “some sort of wording” at the site, and “maybe we need more statues, of a whole diverse bunch of people – but they don’t have to necessarily be a figurative thing”.
Locke thinks people are ready to have complicated discussions. “We need to not be afraid to look at certain histories,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear with this. But it’s nothing to be afraid of. History is messy – more messy and more complicated than people think.” He smiles. “And I am a fan of complication.”