Stuart Jeffries

Stop tearing down controversial statues, says British-Guyanan artist Hew Locke

The artist, who has wrapped a statue of Victoria in a wooden ship in Birmingham, prefers a retain and explain approach

Stop tearing down controversial statues, says British-Guyanan artist Hew Locke
Hew Locke in Birmingham’s Victoria Square with ‘Foreign Exchange’, his reworking of Queen Victoria’s statue. Photo: Shaun Fellows. Courtesy of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon
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When Hew Locke was growing up in Guyana, he would pass by the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Georgetown’s law courts. Henry Richard Hope-Pinker’s 1894 statue had been commissioned to mark the monarch’s golden jubilee, but not long after Guyana became independent from British rule in 1970, the statue was beheaded and the remains thrown into bushes in the botanical gardens.

‘I remember being shocked that such a sacrilegious thing could happen,’ says the Edinburgh-born, Guyana-raised, London-based 62-year-old artist. ‘It set me thinking about what public statues are for. Who are these people? How come we pass by them without noticing every day?’

Half a century later and thousands of miles away, Locke is still thinking about these questions. We’re standing beneath another statue of Victoria, in Birmingham, between Joseph Chamberlain’s Italianate Council House and the Parthenon-replica Town Hall.

Thomas Brock’s 1901 marble figure was erected here 12 days before Victoria’s death in 1901. In 1951, to mark the Festival of Britain, a bronze cast by William Bloye and members of the Birmingham School of Art replaced it. Now, in 2022, Hew Locke is giving Queen Victoria a yet more extreme makeover. He hasn’t chopped off Victoria’s head. Neither has he emulated other destroyers of statuary such as the Baghdad weightlifter who took a sledgehammer to the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Ukrainians who, during the so-called Leninfall of 2014, pulled down 320 statues of Lenin, or the Bristolians who in 2020 threw slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue into the dock.

Instead, Locke has tried something more subtly provoking. He has wrapped the existing statue of Victoria with a wooden ship as if she is about to set sail on a world tour.

Locke has given her five shipmates in the form of queenly mini-mes, each cast in patinated bronze. Each replica bears a medal marking some key battle in Britain’s imperial history. One commemorates the British East India Company’s defeat of Tipu Sultan, at the 1799 Siege of Seringapatam (without which, Locke reckons, Victoria would never have become Empress of India); another marks Britain’s calamitous second Afghan war of 1878-80 (which, Locke points out, was fought as part of the great game to stop the Russian bear getting its paws on the British Raj); a third memorialises the British soldiers who looted the Benin bronzes, now held in the British Museum.

Each Victoria wears a martial helmet. One is a replica of Britannia’s, another recalls the Statue of Liberty’s, and the original Victoria has been crowned with a gladiator-like helmet with a visor across one eye, making her resemble a cross between serene monarch and Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius.

Locke’s reworking of Victoria’s statue is called ‘Foreign Exchange’ and was commissioned by the city’s Ikon Gallery as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival that coincides with Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games. The seven-metre high sculpture will remain in place for two months, after which the Victorian mini-mes and the ship will be taken away and Victoria restored to single occupancy of her plinth.

What is ‘Foreign Exchange’ all about, I ask Locke?

‘I am trying to create something attractive that opens up conversations rather than shoves people into their echo chambers,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be didactic, because that never works, and I don’t have a fixed agenda. I’m not a republican. I’m not a royalist either.’ Unlike some Guyanans, he is not unhappy that the pieces of Queen Victoria’s statues in the botanical garden were reassembled and the statue put back in its place in 1990.

Locke’s work has long been concerned with monarchs and empire, conquest and subjugation. His 2019 show at the Ikon Gallery featured haunted ships and porcelain busts of British monarchs decorated with pearls, gilded skulls and replicas of the looted African bronzes. His art, it seems to me, riffs on the Walter Benjamin principle that ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.

You can see that very point in a tiny detail in Locke’s marvellous new installation at Tate Britain. ‘The Procession’ consists of more than 100 figures – human, equestrian, historical, contemporary, even leonine – marching in a crazy cavalcade of history through the Duveen Galleries, a grand space bankrolled by slave labour on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. One of those figures is a dandy in fancy duds who has something appalling appliquéd to the back of his jacket. It is a little reproduction of William Blake’s print of a slave dangling from a makeshift gallows.

My experience in the Duveen Galleries finds resonances in Birmingham. The chains that suspended that hanged slave may well have been forged in Birmingham, the one- time workshop of the world in which manacles and metal collars were specialities.

‘The Procession’ also reminds me of the terrible fate of public art in Birmingham. For many years, a fibreglass sculpture by Raymond Masson lived in Centenary Square. Like ‘The Procession’, it depicted a march of history, in this case the Brummies processing from their smokestack past to a new greener, cosmopolitan future – a vision of historical progress that Locke’s installation, for all its similarities, eschews.

Then in 2003, vandals burned ‘Forward’ down. It was replaced in 2014 by Gillian Wearing’s sculpture ‘A Real Birmingham Family’, depicting two sisters, both single mums, one pregnant, and their two children, only for it to be attacked by a Fathers for Justice protestor and, in 2017, put into storage.

When I remind Hew Locke of the fate of these sculptures, both of which were sited a stone’s thrown from ‘Foreign Exchange’, he chuckles: ‘Hope mine gets treated more kindly.’

Locke isn’t the only artist in Birmingham to be forging conversations about Queen Victoria’s imperial rule. Down a back street in the city’s Digbeth area, there is an exhibition devoted to one of Queen Victoria’s dogs. Amy Ching-Yan Lam’s ‘Looty Goes to Heaven’ is a four-minute video of a replica of the Pekinese stolen from China during the Opium Wars. The adorable, albeit computer-generated Peke lounges stupefied on a rug surrounded by flowering poppies, presumably getting as stoned as the Brits hoped the Chinese people would continue to do.

Hew Locke never supposed he’d get the chance to reimagine Queen Victoria’s statue. ‘For 20 years I’ve been coming up with projects like this, and they were all refused.’ He wanted to give makeovers to Richard the Lionheart’s equestrian sculpture outside parliament and Boudicca on the banks of the Thames nearby. His plans never got beyond the drawing board. ‘If you can’t get used to rejection as an artist, you’re in the wrong career,’ he says, smiling.

In 2006, he even produced a design for Edward Colston’s controversial statue in Bristol. ‘I covered a photograph of it with cowrie shells and skulls, all symbols of what he had done, this evil man, to black people.’ The design was never realised on the real sculpture. Had it been, perhaps anti-Colston protestors would have felt less inclined to knock the statue off its plinth.

How did he feel when Colston’s statue came down? ‘My reaction was shock. Not horror but shock. I’m not a fan of tearing them down. I’m more of a retain and explain person.’ If statues do come down, he would prefer it to be in the way Nelson’s statue was removed from National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, Barbados, two years ago, with speeches and ceremony.

Perhaps, now he’s reimagined Victoria, he should tackle Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square?

Instead, he tells me of his latest commission from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. ‘Working on statues in the US is a much more difficult affair than in Birmingham,’ he says. Why? ‘Those guys have guns! You’ve got to be careful what you do there.’ The Met project will involve four sculptures made by Locke, each riffing on a work from the museum’s collection and installed so as to stare down visitors climbing the steps from Fifth Avenue.

‘Foreign Exchange’ has already provoked derision. The chairman of Birmingham’s Civic Society called it ‘woke rubbish’ and the local Evening Mail damned it with the inevitable headline ‘We are not amused’. Queen Victoria, if not amused, ought to be grateful to Hew Locke. With all due respect to Thomas Brock and the handiwork of later artisans, Victoria’s statue was often passed by unregarded in favour of shoutier new sculptural neighbours in Victoria Square, such as Antony Gormley’s ‘Iron: Man’ and the so-called Floozie in the Jacuzzi, Dhruva Mistry’s monumental collection of fountains and sculpture called ‘The River’. Today, thanks to Locke, Victoria has become unprecedentedly Instagrammable. Brummies disport themselves for selfies before her and her mini-mes.

Locke looks on happily: ‘I want it to be accessible to everybody whatever their political background. I want the public to look into history. How did that happen? How are we here?’

In a city where the slave chains were forged and yet descendants of those whom Victoria colonised now thrive, where political parties operated colour bars and distributed racist leaflets within living memory (provoking a 1956 visit to the city by Malcolm X), such questions are worth asking.

‘Birmingham is a very different city from those days,’ says Locke. ‘This is a city that I think can face up to its past. And I’d like to help with that.’

Hew Locke: Foreign Exchange is in Victoria Square, Birmingham, until 15 August. Hew Locke: The Procession is in the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain, until 22 January 2023.