The crowd keeps coming, the full length of the Duveen Galleries in Tate Britain. Many on foot, some on horseback, some carried, one in a wheelchair. Men and women and children, little drummers, people in Dogon masks and mantillas, others wearing ferocious animal heads or looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are demons and skulls, conical penitential caps, fantastical millinery, faces covered in stars and others decorated with flowers, a child with an old man’s face, others who look like they have been ravaged by disease or injured by war. Heavily pregnant women, women in cubist cardboard skirts, delicate faces cut and folded and faceted from card, people with their arms spread like dancers, figures with flowers in their hair and women all in black and in upholstered skirts who might have stepped out of a Velázquez painting. We pass by guys in sharp suits, and others who might have stepped out of a ball, but besmirched from wading through a flood. It is a crazy journey, stilled the length of Tate Britain’s spine.
The Procession, Hew Locke’s 2022 Tate Britain Commission, is at times as joyful as it is filled with sorrows. By far the most accomplished, ambitious and fascinating work I have seen by the 62-year-old artist, the work includes around 150 figures, each one individuated and wearing a hand-sewn and crafted costume. The Procession roars the length of the gallery. Among much else, it shows what an artist of Locke’s ambition can achieve when given sufficient resources to work at full stretch.
This is all more than fancy dress, although carnival itself takes pleasure in plays of time and place. Stilt-walkers and confraternities of hooded penitents, figures in mantles, capes, army camouflage, Easter Virgins and saints supported on catafalques and floats, as if at Holy Week; the dressed-up, the dressed down, a tatterdemalion mob, and a celebration or a funeral march. Banners and medallions, dubloons and pearls, clothing and banners decorated with company share certificates and promissory notes and pictures of the ruined and decaying houses of plantation owners – The Procession is consciously, deliriously excessive, but as orchestrated as a pageant.
Edinburgh-born, raised in Guyana and living between London and Cornwall, Locke remembers a Tate briefing before the 2015 Artists and Empire exhibition, which trivialised the fact that Henry Tate made his money not simply through the sugar trade, but through the legacy of slavery. Tate’s collection, which formed the basis of the gallery’s holdings, was put together, the gallery made clear, after the abolition of the slave trade. Locke, who was included in the exhibition, was deeply uncomfortable about the gallery’s rewriting of its own past. It was a comfortable origin story.
The Procession unpacks some of this problematic history, as well as taking Caribbean carnival, the story of post-colonial trade, empire and the current environmental disaster in its stride. Past and present collide and intermingle, throwing up echoes and asides. A mix of Junkanoo and Guyanese Mashramani carnivals, protest and celebration, defiance and redress, The Procession is endlessly captivating and overwhelming.
In terms of its complexity, I was reminded both of Mark Wallinger’s 2007 State Britain, installed in the same spaces, and of Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan’s 2020 In Plain Sight at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery, which, like The Procession, takes Caribbean carnival (and in particular Bahamian and Jamaican Junkanoo) as a major reference point. Other references in the work abound – from John Singleton Copley’s 1783 painting The Death of Major Peirson (parts of the image cover one character’s costume) to James Ensor’s 1888 Christ’s Entry into the City of Brussels, with its crazed mob.
Since the suppression of African religions across the Caribbean in the 19thcentury, carnival has been a kind of safety valve, a world turned upside down, a release, and an assertion of identity, including such figures as Mother Sally, the Midnight Robber and Sailor Mas, whose names and roles and origins have their roots in folklore and religion. Neither picturesque nor a diversion, The Procession makes its way from the past into the future, from old wounds to new terrors, and everything in between.