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Hew Locke’s New Art on Slavery Now Displayed in London
A detail from Hew Locke’s latest work, Raw Materials 27, a 2-metre-tall collage displayed at the British Academy. Photograph: Oli Cowling

When British-Guyanese sculptor Hew Locke received an invitation to create a piece for the British Academy, he had to seize the moment. The building’s historical weight added significance to this rare commission.

The former British Academy residence belonged to William Gladstone, a former prime minister. Gladstone’s father, John, gained immense wealth from his plantations in Jamaica and British Guiana (now Guyana) and was one of the largest enslavers in the Caribbean. Recently, the Gladstone family publicly apologized for his role in slavery and encouraged the UK to discuss reparations with the Caribbean.

The setting could not be more fitting for Locke, whose art has consistently examined themes such as politics, greed, race, and history. “That was interesting to me; you can’t say no to that,” Locke expressed, emphasizing his fascination with contrasting his work against certain architectural settings.

Locke’s work resonates strongly with recent British preoccupations, especially following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “It’s busy, which I’m not complaining about because it can all go away tomorrow,” Locke remarked, aware of the fleeting nature of an artist’s relevance. He likens artists to antelopes in the Serengeti, sensing danger in the air, implying that their work can quickly go out of fashion.

Currently, Locke is in demand. His exhibition “What Have We Here?” in collaboration with the British Museum will open in October. Locke has been engaged by the Royal Academy, the British Museum, the Met in New York, and Tate Britain, where his piece Procession captivated audiences with its portrayal of a “roaring carnival of humanity” in the main hall.

“The Black Lives Matter movement changed things quite considerably,” Locke noted, saying it elevated issues he had long been advocating, like debates over statues, bringing them to the forefront.

His latest piece, Raw Materials 27, stands at 2-metres tall and will confront visitors at the British Academy. Typical of Locke’s style, the collage references Guyana, where he grew up, and historical elements such as the rubber barons of Manaus in Brazil and the slave trade that fueled their wealth. It also includes images of decaying colonial buildings in Guyana.

Locke, who has mentioned he might have been a historian if he were not an artist, developed his interest in British history during his childhood in Guyana. He vividly recalls pondering the old trading ship on his school badge and traveling through areas with Dutch, French, and English names. “You’re living with history, you don’t even have to look it up,” he stated.

Raw Materials 27 will join the expansive collection at the British Academy, which features works by Paula Rego, Terry Frost, and Yinka Shonibare, and is currently being digitized through the Bloomberg Connects app. This initiative aims to make the collection accessible to art lovers and the culturally curious globally, according to Professor Dawn Adès, chair of the British Academy’s art committee.

When asked about potential accusations that the British Academy or the British Museum might be using black artists to fill gaps in their collections, Locke was pragmatic. “If you thought like that you wouldn’t do anything. There’s always a reason to not do things,” he said. Locke emphasized that history is complicated and messy, and questioned: “What else are you going to do? Throw in the towel?”

Locke’s engagement with these influential institutions and his contributions continue to provoke thought and discussion about history and its enduring impact.

Source: The Guardian