The Tate Britain continues to put its more fashionable sibling the Tate Modern to shame with its flagship public installation, following up last year’s neon-soaked post-apocalypse by Heather Phillipson with a zeitgeist-capturing parade by British sculptor Hew Locke.
The cavernous Duveen Galleries play the host to a rambling procession, with dozens – 150 to be precise – of life-size figures ambling through the space, each one intricately crafted from cardboard and fabric, a sculpture in its own right. The mass of people seem to hail from across the globe – there are references to the South American nation of Guyana, where Locke spent much of his childhood, as well as signifiers of African, Asian and British folk traditions (Locke has lived in Cornwall since 1980 and there are The Wicker Man-esque folk-horror vibes to many of his creations).
Split into loose groups, it seems not everybody in this parade is here for the same reason. There are black-clad families in mourning, groups of protestors, religious figures, flag-bearers with the confidence of a pride movement, others just there to enjoy the carnival atmosphere.
Colonialism is ever-present, with references to the national and commercial powers that plundered Africa, India and South America. There are chests decorated with bonds for Nigerian Gold Mines Limited, bills of sale from the East India Company, stocks in the Black Star Line shipping company that transported slaves across the ocean.
This all reflects the dubious history of the Tate itself, whose original benefactor Henry Tate made his fortune in the sugar business (Tate was 14 and his partner Abram Lyle 12 when slavery was abolished in 1833, but while neither directly owned slaves research by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London concluded the Tate & Lyle empire was “constructed on the foundation of slavery”). Locke says his installation makes links with the “historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing it out of the walls of the building”. Elsewhere you can see nods to other subjects Locke has addressed in his work, including climate change and totalitarianism.
But this isn’t a didactic experience, rather one of defiance. While the expressionless tribal masks and children with wreaths of flowers for heads are certainly sinister (were a character in a movie to stumble across this scene you wouldn’t bet on them surviving very long), the colours and flamboyant clothing suggest joy rather than hate. The ambiguity of time and geography allows this ragtag group to supersede any one message, instead presenting a general feeling of hope through unity, of banishing the evils of the past by collaborating towards a better future. This space, where colonialism ripples through from the past, has been reclaimed.