The keeps coming, the whole length of 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 cloaks, others wearing ferocious animal heads or resembling the creature from the black lagoon. There are demons and skulls, cone-shaped punishment caps, amazing milling, faces covered in stars and others decorated with flowers, a child with an old man’s face, others who look as if they have been ravaged by disease or wounded by war. Highly pregnant women, women in cubist cardboard skirts, delicate faces cut and folded and faceted of cardboard, people with spread arms like dancers, figures with flowers in their hair and women in black and padded skirts who may have stepped out of a Velázquez painting. We walk past guys in sharp suits and others who may have stepped out of a ball but polluted from wading through a flood. It’s an insane journey that has dampened the length of Tate Britain’s backbone.
The procession, the Hew Lockes Tate Britain Commission from 2022, 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 about 150 figures, each individually and wearing a hand-sewn and crafted costume. The procession roars in the length of the gallery. Among many other things, it shows what an artist with Locke’s ambitions can achieve when it is given sufficient resources to work at full power.
This is all more than fancy dress, though carnival itself enjoys the play of time and place. Stilt walkers and fraternities of hooded messengers, figures in cloaks, cloaks, army camouflage, Easter virgins, and saints supported on catafals and fleets, as at Holy Week; the undressed, the undressed, a mob mob and a party or a funeral march. Banners and medallions, dubloons and pearls, clothes and banners decorated with company stock letters and promissory notes and pictures of the plantation owners’ ruined and dilapidated houses – the procession is deliberate, eerily exaggerated, but just as orchestrated as a party competition.
Edinburgh-born, raised in Guyana and living between London and Cornwall, Locke remembers a Tate briefing before the 2015 Artists and Empire exhibition, which downplayed the fact that Henry Tate earned his money not just through the sugar trade but through the legacy of slavery. Tate’s collection, which formed the basis of the gallery’s inventory, was put together, making the gallery clear, after the abolition of the slave trade. Locke, who participated in the exhibition, was deeply uncomfortable with the gallery’s rewriting of his own past. It was a pleasant origin story.
The procession unpacks some of this problematic history and takes the Caribbean carnival, the history of postcolonial trade, empire and the current environmental disaster in stride. Past and present collide and mingle, giving echoes and overrides. A mix of Junkanoo and Guyanese Mashramani carnivals, protest and celebration, defiance and redress, The Procession is infinitely captivating and overwhelming.
In terms of its complexity, I was reminded both of Mark Wallinger’s 2007 State Britain, installed in the same rooms, and of the Bahamian artist Tavares Strachans 2020 In Plain Sight at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery, which like The Procession takes the Caribbean Carnival (and especially the Bahamian and Jamaican Junkanoo) as an important reference point. Other references in the work abound – from John Singleton Copley’s painting of 1783 Major Peirson’s death (parts of the picture cover a character’s costume) to James Ensor’s Christ’s entrance into the city of Brussels from 1888 with its insane mob.
Since the repression of African religions across the Caribbean in the 19th century, carnival has been a kind of safety valve, a world turned upside down, a release and a claim to identity, including people like Mother Sally, 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 to the future, from old wounds to new horrors and everything in between.