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Vita, Veritas, Victoria is a very large, roughly symmetrical work made from black beads, cord and staples, which is attached to a blank white wall. It depicts an elaborate crest presented in a loose but ornate style. At the bottom of the image, standing on a base decorated with three small animal or demon heads, are two thick-lipped lions that hold up a shield bearing an image of a woman surrounded by moons, crosses and stars. Above this is depicted what appears to be a royal crown, and at the top of the image is a mask bearing an angry expression, with a long, curling moustache emerging from just below its nostrils. The mask is framed on either side by two small, doll-like figures and topped by a headdress with skulls around its rim. Spiky vines and jagged fronds appear at multiple points on the crest and are often combined with other images: for example, thorns run along the edges of the mask’s moustache, and the lions’ coats and tails morph into tendrils and leaves, while stalks emerge from behind their heads and seem to form long, curled horns. Thin strings of beads are attached to many parts on the surface of the work and are left to droop down vertically, hanging loosely against the wall. There are borders of 305 mm at the top and bottom of the picture, and the section of wall on which the piece is displayed is lit softly from above. The borders on the left and the right vary in dimension, since the work can be exhibited on walls of different sizes at different times.
This work was made by the British artist Hew Locke. It was commissioned and produced in 2007 for a group exhibition entitled Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art that was held that same year at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Locke initially drew a version of the picture in black ink on an A4 sheet of transparent acetate, and then used this to project the image onto the gallery wall and trace it on there in pencil. He then glued sections of cord onto the pencil lines and further secured them using matt black staples, before finally gluing lines of beads along the cord’s edges. Locke has stipulated that new beads and cord are to be used with each installation of the work, and that the glue should be applied quite loosely in visible blobs and trails. Locke has made several works in this way since 2004 and has called them ‘bead drawings’ (quoted in Nicholas James, ‘Hew Locke’, in Interviews-Artists: Patterns of Experience, Recordings 1988–2011, London 2011, p.164).
Vita, Veritas, Victoria is one of many works made by Locke that feature coats of arms, often specifically the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. While the large crown in this work could be inspired by the royal crest, most of the work’s components are based on ethnographic objects from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The leaf-like design was influenced by decorations on an ancient pot from Nazca, Peru; the lions’ faces derive from African masks; the doll-like figures are based on motifs in a textile from the Paracas area of Peru; and the image on the shield was adapted from an 1868 sculpture called Negress by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. The black beads that Locke used in this piece were originally inspired by Halloween necklaces, and he had used these necklaces when making his first bead drawing in 2004.
The title of the work is a Latin phrase that translates into English as ‘Life, Truth, Victory’. Although not all viewers will be able to translate the phrase, it is recognisable as the kind of Latin motto that traditionally accompanies coats of arms. However in Vita, Veritas, Victoria Locke modifies this symbol of the European tradition of heraldry by decorating its crest with non-European objects and motifs. Much of Locke’s work involves the fusion of diverse cultural symbols and in 2010 the artist stated that this practice stems ‘on a personal level ... from having grown up in Guyana which is a sort of mixed multi-cultural society’ (Locke in ‘Meet the Artist, Hew Locke’, accessed 13 October 2014). Locke has linked Vita, Veritas, Victoria to the fact that ‘all Caribbean countries have a European-originated coat of arms as their own national symbol, and also that they have all incorporated native symbols of native peoples’ artefacts/plants/wildlife into this European format’ (Hew Locke, unpublished statement sent by email to Alejandra Aguado by Ella Whitmarsh, Hales Gallery, 20 November 2007, Tate Acquisition file).
As well as having European origins, coats of arms have broader associations with class and power. Locke has said that he took the royal coat of arms motif from the front of the British passport, which Locke describes as a ‘taken-for-granted object that people are literally dying to get’ (Locke in Jarrett Earnest, ‘Hew Locke: In Conversation with Jarrett Earnest’, Miami Rail, May 2014, http://miamirail.org/visual-arts/hew-locke-in-conversation-with-jarrett-earnest, accessed 13 October 2014). He has suggested that he intended for this work to evoke a sense of melancholy or conflict, stating that the loose-hanging beads are meant to seem as if they have ‘come unstuck’ (Hew Locke, ‘Installation Instructions for Vita, Veritas, Victoria’ 2008, Tate Acquisition file), making the piece look ‘half ripped down’ and ‘broken’ (Locke in ‘Meet the Artist, Hew Locke’, accessed 13 October 2014). This look of desolation and erosion may evoke the desperate situations experienced by people trying to gain entry to and citizenship in Britain.
‘Meet the Artist, Hew Locke’, Tateshots, 7 January 2010, www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-meet-artist-hew-locke, accessed 13 October 2014.
Stephanie James and Peter Bonnell (eds.), Stranger in Paradise: Hew Locke, London 2011, reproduced pp.23–7.
Supported by Christie’s.