Hew Locke



Not on display

Hew Locke born 1959
Wood, textile, metal, string, plastic, rubber, paper, and paint
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased with assistance from Tate International Council and with Art Fund support 2021


Armada 2019 is an installation made up of forty-five boats of varying sizes made by the artist between 2017 and 2019. The flotilla, which is suspended from the ceiling around shoulder height, includes boats from different periods and places – miniature cargo ships and fishing boats sit alongside caravels and galleons. Locke has described them as votive boats, based on models he had seen in churches and cathedrals in continental Europe, offered by worshippers to give thanks for survival at sea (in Buck 2019, accessed 29 November 2019). Each boat is made from and decorated with a variety of materials. Some of them feature plastic toys, nets and decorations which are mass produced and widely available very cheaply; others incorporate jewels, charms, military badges and replica medals from conflicts involving former colonies. Some are adorned with brass cut-outs featuring Portuguese mercenaries as depicted by sixteenth-century Benin sculptors, along with images of contemporary soldiers. Coins from places like the Caribbean, Gambia and Syria call to mind international trade and the movement of goods, as well as the movement of people and the current global refugee crisis.

This multi-layered approach to the aesthetic treatment of the boats reflects the artist’s wider approach to time and history. Though Locke’s various ships and maritime installations reference different sites, mythologies and histories, they also link together to form a single, mythic fleet passing through history. Locke says of the boats, ‘They are not specifically talking about the current refugee crisis: it’s about a longer, wider view of history where perhaps yesterday’s refugee might be today’s citizen.’ (Hew Locke, in Buck 2019, accessed 29 November 2019.)

Known for both his fascination with and ambivalence towards global ideas and visual representations of Britishness, Locke’s explorations of cultural and national identity have ranged from images and busts of the Royal Family encrusted with mass-produced plastic toys, beads and flowers to an immersive installation on the decommissioned battle cruiser HMS Belfast – permanently moored as a visitor attraction on the River Thames in London – with mannequin sailors festooned with carnival costumes and masks. Through appropriating heraldry, medals and state regalia, as well as using naval warships and public commemorative sculptures as sites for artistic intervention, Locke offers nuanced analyses of governmental authority, iconographies and legacies.

The history of Guyana, where Locke spent his formative years, is inextricably linked to the Dutch and British ships which transported enslaved people there from Africa from the early seventeenth century onwards. In a video shown in the exhibition learning space to accompany his solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in which Armada was shown, Locke talked about boats being in his DNA. The word Guyana means ‘land of many waters’ and traditional houses there are built on stilts above the water. Indeed, Locke himself travelled to Britain from Guyana on a boat as part of the post-Windrush generation. In an interview with the writer Debika Ray, Locke described how:

for years after leaving, I would make a boat annually as a kind of security blanket and that expanded to become a major part of my practice. It’s to do with the idea of migration and refugees and the fact that the sea is a great leveller. My boats are inspired by vessels across the globe and come from a kaleidoscope of imagery – both photographic and things I’ve seen.
(Hew Locke, quoted in Ray 2019, p.20–1.)

With elements modelled on the Mayflower – the ship that transported the first English pilgrims to the New World in 1620 – alongside vessels based on the old wooden ships of the sort the East India Company might have used, as well as a model of the HMT Empire Windrush (the ship which brought one of the first groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to Britain), Locke’s Armada fuses existing material and historic sources with his own memories and concerns. His miniature version of the Windrush, for example, is tiny, reminding the viewer that that particular moment of migration, and the reverberations that followed, are just one small fragment of a perpetual story. His amalgamations of the historical and the contemporary in such works do not offer viewers a linear or straightforward narrative, but rather necessitate a deeper look into the entangled histories and concerns with which they are burdened.

Although the forty-five boats that make up Armada are intended to be shown together as one work, some of the earliest made were shown as part of the installation On the Tethys Sea at the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and it is possible for smaller groups of the boats to be displayed. Armada was first shown in its entirety at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham as part of Locke’s solo exhibition, Here’s the Thing from 8 March–2 June 2019. It subsequently travelled to Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri (12 September 2019–5 January 2020) and Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine (20 February 2020 onwards).

Further reading
Louisa Buck, ‘Hew Locke discusses monarchy and model boats in new survey show at Ikon Gallery’, The Art Newspaper, 11 March 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/interview-hew-locke-talks-post-colonialism-and-power-boats, accessed 29 November 2019.
Debika Ray, ‘Rituals and Royalty’, Crafts, no.277, March–April 2019, pp.20–1.
Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2019.

Aïcha Mehrez
November 2019

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