“We’re all floating on the same ocean,” notes the artist Hew Locke. This insight provides one of the undercurrents in Here’s the Thing, the most comprehensive exhibition to date of Locke’s work. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1959 but raised largely in Guyana—a British colony from the nineteenth century until 1966—Locke ferried between two continents during his childhood. Steeped in multicultural influences reflective of its unique history, Guyana is the only South American country with English as its official language, resulting in a strong sense of identification with former British colonies in the nearby Caribbean.
Within his maritime imaginary, Locke addresses the unfinished work of empire, examining national symbols that have underwritten our received histories of civilization and primitivism. But his preoccupations with the past do not limit his vision. “People are here,” he reminds us, “because Britain went there.” He considers histories of imperialism, migration, and diaspora, along with the realities faced by present-day political and climate refugees. By his own account, he is “making global links between people on the sea.”
Locke began interrogating public statuary well in advance of recent debates about monuments. A modified antique bust of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) appears to wilt beneath a headdress and breastplate constructed from carnivalesque beads, crests, and all manner of other embellishment. His overpainted share certificates (documents certifying stock ownership) offer insight into the movement of investment capital, magnifying the imbalances of power at play in these financial transactions. Repurposed plastic baubles and novelties call attention to the ways these objects now circulate internationally.
Climate change is an inescapable reality in the overpainted photographs and watercolors. Early Dutch settlers applied engineering knowledge cultivated in their low-lying country of origin to the river delta in what is now Guyana. Today, the overwhelming majority of the Guyanese population lives below sea level. For his part, Locke creates drawings of “houseboats,” fanciful and self-sufficient structures that offer the dual promise of shelter and passage.
Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing is organized by Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; and the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Ikon Gallery, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and Colby College Museum of Art.