hew Locke’s mind is constantly buzzing. The artist says that sometimes he gets up at three in the morning and turns to his sleeping wife and asks her what she thinks of a project he’s working on. You will say “don’t panic”. He answers: “I’m not panicking, but I am a perfectionist.” Binge-watching TV can help put him out of his mind but only if it sucks. If not, he said with a smile, “The wall behind my TV is my canvas.” His brain will drop things on him. For the past two months, his mind had been directing a specific area of light in Turner’s painting. “It’s going to come out somewhere along the line,” he says. “It’s frankly tiring. Sometimes it’s bloody exhausting.” Laugh.
Luke is “working harder than ever” and is very happy. His highly ambitious work The Parade, a parade of 100 figures sweeping Tate Britain, Open to rave reviews in March. This week, he opened his new forex business for the 2022 Birmingham Festival and Commonwealth Games. Locke encased the city’s Queen Victoria statue with a boat carrying the Queen and five smaller replicas, each with a medal to signify the battles fought in the British Empire.
At 62, Locke is gaining the recognition he has long deserved and the issues that have concerned him for decades are as timely as you can get: imperial power, the legacy of colonialism, the legality of monarchy, immigration, and controversial public art. Long before the statue existed Slave trader Edward Colston It came into the consciousness of people outside of Bristol – and before he was ousted in 2020 – Locke was using it, among other things, in his 2006 article Restoration. In this, he altered images of relics, wrapping them in the spoils of her brutally earned fortune, which – if you look closely – included charred objects such as golden skeletons and slave ships. Now that society has recovered, Locke allows himself a small moment of contentment, but adds, “That doesn’t mean I can sit down.”
We meet in his London studio, where two assistants work on detailed models of boats for a piece of New York – chosen to create new work for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum, which will be on display from September. He is also one of the artists featured in the upcoming show to explore the future of Africans, In Black Fantastic, at Hayward Gallery in London. Our conversation is punctuated by subtle ways.
His works are varied, including paintings, drawings, and installations using materials ranging from cardboard to bronze. In honor of the 800th anniversary of his Magna Carta jurors12 Bronze Chairs Standing at Runnymede, with panels depicting key moments in the struggle for freedom and equality, across countries and centuries. But the boats are his fortitude. Growing up in Georgetown, Guyana, he was fascinated by the fishing boats right behind the seawall and they feature frequently in his work, from the late 1980s, when he was studying fine art in Falmouth, to Hemmed In 1999, which features a cardboard ship stacked between Columns of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“If I didn’t make a boat at least every three years,” he says, “there was an imbalance. Now I make them all the time and I’m much happier.” What do they mean to him? “A whole bunch of complicated things – hope, complicated histories, migration.” He recalls traveling by boat from Guyana on a trip back to the UK in the early 1970s, “which I only realized many years later was bringing a generation after Windrush to live here.”
It is taken from their history, from Plato’s analogy to the ship of state to the origin of the word “nave. It means many different things. A boat that you can carry in your hand and mind.” This is what he hopes to do in Birmingham: “People can keep it in their minds long after the piece is removed. It is very important that it is temporary. It becomes this strange mirage, this dreamlike memory.”
Sailing with Queen Victoria “seems to make sense – these Victoria statues could have been shipped around the world.” The five replicas around in his new work reminded him of the depiction of the Virgin Mary in Christian art, the larger Mary surrounded by two smaller temples. “This is almost like a mother figure with her offspring. There is something emotionally evocative about that.”
Locke was born in Edinburgh and moved with his family to Guyana when he was a child. His parents were artists: his father was the Guyanese sculptor Donald Locke, his mother was the English painter Lily Locke. “That’s why I thought it was such a bad idea,” he said with a laugh when I asked him if he always knew he’d be an artist. “When I was about 14 or 15, I said to my mom, ‘Look how we struggle.’ My parents had separated by that time which made finances difficult. I tried really hard not to be an artist, but one day I was in class, painting a hibiscus flower. After About 40 minutes later, I realized I wasn’t drawing it – I was making it. Since then, it’s been something I can’t escape.” Now, he says, “I work for the mind. It’s not a profession. It’s not even a profession. That’s what I am.”
He returned to the UK when he was twenty-one, and spent four years as a depository clerk at a bank while taking adult education classes, then art school – initially Falmouth, then an MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. For a while in the ’90s, he worked in an abandoned hospital in London. the artist Yenka Schonebar He also worked there, where Luke met his wife, artist and curator Indra Khanna. “It was awesome,” he recalls. “Creative – but totally bloody freeze.”
Shortly thereafter , Young British Artist Movement “They cast such a shadow – great work, but it obscured many things.” Locke and other artists of color “felt that there was no room for us, and so we had to make a place for ourselves.” He was speaking of Guyana as the inspiration for some of his work, and: “As soon as I mentioned it, I could see people turning me to the sidelines.” So stop talking about it. He also stopped using the colors for a while, because people might describe them as “weird.” Then he began “to make fake weirdos and fake voodoo dolls and things like that. It was in response to the way I was rendering, and I covered all my drawings with the word ‘export’, because the work was considered to be sourced from somewhere else, when it was nearby.”
As a child in Georgetown, he would pass a statue of Queen Victoria every day on the way to school. The work has had a controversial history: damaged during protests in the 1950s, removed in 1970 to celebrate Guyana’s independence, and then returned in 1990. Locke has always been interested in what the statues mean. Does he agree to remove them? “It’s complicated,” he says. “I can say no, but I can’t tell anyone in an American town who’s removing a Confederate statue not to do it. That’s something completely different. I think it’s complicated 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 very problematic and insulting to many people in Bristol – and no one listened to it. I must say I absolutely do not think that the statue of Queen Victoria should be removed.” In Birmingham. That’s not what I’m talking about. The Colston statue was a special set of circumstances.” In general, he believes that removing the statues is “not a good idea”. why? He thinks for a moment. “Because you’re removing the date, wiping something under the rug, and that’s not a good thing.” He prefers the discussion, “kind of phrasing” on site, and “maybe we need more figurines, for a whole group of people – but they don’t have to be something symbolic.”
Locke believes that people are prepared to have complex discussions. “We shouldn’t be afraid to look at certain dates,” he says. “There is a lot to be feared about this. But there is nothing to be afraid of. History is messy — more chaotic and more complex than people think.” He laughs. “I am a fan of intricacies.”