- Donald Locke 1930–2010
- Acrylic paint, digital prints on paper and paper, on paper
- Image: 380 × 600 mm
support: 380 × 565 mm
- Lent by Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of Timothy Griffith 2020
On long term loan
This is one of a group of three works on paper in Tate’s collection titled Mansions of the South 1996 by the Black British artist Donald Locke (see Tate L04347–49). Executed in acrylic paint with additional collaged paper elements, they relate to a series of larger mixed media paintings on plywood titled Southern Mansions. As was common in his work, Locke used a restrained palette, with large areas of dense black combined with elements in primary colours and green. Organic, sprawling black and grey forms contrast with and partially obscure a number of elements glued to the main paper support: loosely rectangular blocks of coloured paper; photographs of Locke’s sculptures; and images of mansions of the southern United States, where the artist relocated in 1990, settling in Atlanta. These mansions were commonly the homes of large plantation owners. Southern plantations were generally self-sufficient settlements that relied on the forced labour of slaves, descendants of men and women kidnapped and forcefully trafficked from West Africa by European slave traders. The large houses represented in Mansions of the South were probably built in the later colonial period, when the dominant architectural style was influenced by neoclassicism.
Like the earlier painting Imperial Echoes 1992, also in Tate’s collection (Tate L04346), these works address Locke’s ongoing preoccupation with the structures of subjugation and exploitation, which he described as ‘systems whereby one group of people were kept in political and economical subjugation by another group’ (quoted in Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art 2004, p.9). These concerns, albeit in a British context, also lie at the heart of much of his sculptural work, such as Trophies of Empire 1972–4, also in Tate’s collection (Tate T14319). Despite a lifelong commitment to sculpture in a variety of mediums, painting remained an important activity for Locke and in 1989 he temporarily abandoned sculpture in favour of painting. Locke discussed his preoccupation with memories, clarifying that his work was not an illustration of specific things or events, but captured loose associations (talk by Donald Locke at Skoto Gallery, New York, 2008, accessed 28 October 2019). The curator Carl E. Hazlewood has discussed Locke’s paintings as a ‘matrix in which critical fragments of a transcultural self may exist simultaneously’ (in Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art 2004, p.11).
Locke had studied art in Georgetown, Guyana under Edward Rupert Burrowes (1903–1966). In 1954, through a British Council Scholarship, he went to study ceramics at Bath School of Art and Design in Britain, where he was taught painting by William Scott and Bryan Winter, sculpture by Kenneth Armitage and Bernard Meadows, and pottery by James Tower, one of the first potters to use plaster rather than the two most traditional methods, the potter’s wheel and coiling. Between 1959 and 1963, supported by a Guyanese government scholarship, Locke pursued further education at the Edinburgh School of Art. There he was taught by Sheldon Kaganoff (a pupil of Peter Voulkos, one of the leading artists who established the California Clay Movement in the 1950s and a lecturer in Edinburgh between 1962–5) and also met other artists committed to the expressive possibilities of clay as an artform (such as Dave Cohen and Dion Myers). Nonetheless, Locke was frustrated by the way in which work in ceramics was discussed by most practitioners and critics, applying criteria relating to a rigid and often ideological understanding rooted in a very specific and narrow technical tradition.
Writing in 2004, Locke explained that in the past he had been concerned by the fact that his sculpture, painting and work in other mediums seemed to emerge out of radically different stylistic approaches. This troubled him because it contrasted with the widely held view that an artist’s significance depended on consistency of style, medium and subject matter. He later came to realise that his work had always been preoccupied with, and had emerged from, the background of ‘Creole’ America’. Locke wrote: ‘In retrospect, it appears that the work has always been trying to encompass and bend to the will of the imagination, every aspect of the life and experience of Black people in the New World – the landscapes they inhabit, their physical uniqueness, the folk-lore and myths which crowd their imagination, and the socio-economic legacies they inherited from the past.’ (Donald Locke, ‘Artist’s Statement’, Atlanta, April 2004, included in the press release for his solo exhibition at Skoto Gallery, New York, 2004, https://www.skotogallery.com/viewer/home/donald.locke.release.asd, accessed 28 October 2019.)
Locke described his artistic journey as being concerned with a desire to give form and visibility to the unique contribution of Black culture to modern civilisation. He discussed the Black experience as follows: ‘Perhaps unique in the history of mankind, the Black man in the New World has been coerced in a harrowing agenda, the crossing of thousands of miles of cultural time in space of a few short generations. He has moved from captive African to slave, to free citizen of the New World, precariously clothed in a hybrid ethnicity, a “creole culture”.’ (Locke, ‘Artist’s Statement’, 2004, accessed 28 October 2019.) As Locke suggested, the range of different materials and stylistic approaches he adopted, and the different themes he explored in his work, can be discussed in terms of the hybridity and plurality of Black culture across the Americas and in terms of the contribution of different cultural strands, particularly the African component, to the plural character of modernity.
Carl E. Hazlewood, Bending the Grid: Modernity, Identity and the Vernacular in the Work of Donald Locke, exhibition catalogue, Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, Newark, New Jersey 2004.
Video recording of a talk by Donald Locke at Skoto Gallery, New York 2008, https://www.donaldlocke.com/publications-media/, accessed 28 October 2019.
Donald Locke, Out of Anarchy: Five Decades of Ceramics and Hybrid Sculptures (1959–2009): The Work of Donald Locke, Newark 2011.
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