Hew Locke: Patriotsby Marcia E. Vetrocq
P.P.O.W. | OCTOBER 11 – NOVEMBER 10, 2018
There are two statues of Peter Stuyvesant—one in Jersey City and one in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Square—among the seven monuments photographed by Hew Locke for his 2018 “Patriots” series. From this I learned that the 17th-century colony of New Netherland, of which Stuyvesant was the last governor, encompassed territory in several states, a fact omitted from the local history classes of my Brooklyn childhood. Follow Locke’s lead, and you’ll learn much more. He has photographed area monuments whose subjects—Columbus, a generic Pilgrim, Stuyvesant, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and J. Marion Sims—together represent local, national, and hemispheric history from the age of exploration through the American Revolution, slavery, and the development of global trade, to, implicitly, the troubled present. Locke “dresses” (his word) the statues by attaching chains, beads, medals, real and counterfeit coins, cowries, ex-votos, talismans, ribbons, pieces of filigree, and more to the photographs. The outcomes variously evoke a fetish figure, a tribute-bedecked statue of a Catholic saint on its feast day, a glam rocker, or a dictator whose ceremonial uniform is encrusted with self-awarded medals.
Locke’s vainglorious, and sardonic additions mock the sanitized legacy of each celebrated worthy. Yet the “Patriots” are also cruelly alluring, and the series both demonstrates and parodies the fascination of lavish display, in art as in political life. The Pilgrim is rendered a dandy in gold brocade, ostentation belying his Puritan Calvinist ethos. The Stuyvesant effigies are militarized, helmeted; one is literally defaced by a fearsome ornate grille. The bare-headed, heavenward-gazing Columbus is now an implacable priest with a towering miter and festooned staff. Clues to each figure’s implication in exploitation, brutality, and greed hang amid the cascading regalia. Metal figures of slaves, based on William Blake drawings, dangle from Washington, a slaveholder. A plaque bearing a passage from the Torah is affixed to the base of the Stuyvesant Square monument—the omnibigoted governor sought to block the landing of a boat bearing Dutch Jews from Brazil—while skulls, skeletons, and an “Indian-head” medallion are prominent on the statue’s torso. Strands of blood-red beads and metal renderings of African sculptures and caducei are among the items that adorn Sims (photographed weeks before the monument was removed), who performed experimental gynecological surgeries on enslaved women. “Ornament and Crime” would be an apt subtitle for Locke’s series, with the racist hierarchy of civilizations in Adolf Loos’s 1913 essay of that name being turned on its head.
“Patriots” advances the concerns, procedures, and well-informed irony of Locke’s “Restoration,” (2006) a series of smaller dressed photographs of Bristol monuments, including that of Edward Colston, the city’s foremost philanthropist who made his fortune in the slave trade. There is rich continuity as well in the works that accompany Patriots, in this, Locke’s first show at P.P.O.W. On five authentic share certificates issued by the Confederate government in 1864 (the loans were to come due in 1894), Locke has drawn African-American figures: drummers, musicians (one with grinning Klansmen infiltrating her harlequinesque costume), and a woman wearing a headscarf who holds the barrel of a rifle as if she’s the armed foremother of Betye Saar’s liberated Aunt Jemima. The series is titled Song of the South, after the wince-inducing Disney film of 1946 based on the black folk tales published by a white Georgia journalist as songs and sayings of “the old plantation.”
Locke’s interest in the financial instruments that funded colonialism and slavery goes wide and global in the gallery’s final room. The wall-size mural there is an enlargement of his 2013 drawing on a French loan certificate for the construction of the “interoceanic” Panama Canal. He’s added a haunting group of the project’s notoriously brutalized laborers. Suspended from the ceiling is a long, gently dilapidated boat that seems to have arrived from tropical waters, burlap-wrapped cargo on its open decks, its hull barnacled with Locke’s signature trinkets. One in an extensive series of ships Locke has fashioned, from seaworthy galleons to refugee vessels, the boat is named Desire, after the first slave ship to reach Massachusetts.
No newcomer to the histories of colonialism, slavery, and the Confederacy, Locke was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Guyanese father. In 1965, when independence was granted by the Crown and Locke was six years old, the family resettled in Georgetown, Guyana. An early memory centers on his having seen a toppled statue of Queen Victoria in that city. He’s been a frequent visitor to Atlanta, where his late father lived for a time. Since the 1990s, Locke has been based in London, and there a thwarted desire to dress actual monuments led to his first photo-based surrogates in 2005.
Locke’s “Patriots” are solemn, well-researched travesties. Even as he bedecks the statues with accumulations of trifles, it’s evident that these men were not to be trifled with. This giving the devil his due is distinctive compared to, say, the work of the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, who photographs everyday people standing on the vacated bases of his country’s colonial and Marxist monuments. Locke engages with each existing monument as presence and evidence. A threat remains. As it turns out, Ikon Gallery, which will open a Hew Locke retrospective next spring, is endeavoring to arrange for him to finally dress—for real—Birmingham’s statue of Queen Victoria. Locke’s boyhood recollection and his enduring creative ambition just may come together in an encounter with Her Imperial Majesty.
ContributorMarcia E. Vetrocq
MARCIA E. VETROCQ is a writer, educator, and editor based in New York.