Donald Locke

Trophies of Empire


Donald Locke 1930–2010
Ceramic, wood, metal, glass and other materials
Object: 1905 × 1295 × 203 mm
Purchased 2015


Trophies of Empire 1972–4 consists of a wooden shelved and partitioned cabinet, which is open at the front and back, that stands just over six feet tall and four feet wide. Into each of the twenty-seven slots created by the cabinet’s partitions the artist Donald Locke placed differently sized, dark ceramic cylindrical forms, which have been mounted into a variety of fittings – including a trophy cup and several different candle holders – except for those that occupy the openings on the lower shelf which are un-mounted. Many of the holders or sconces were sourced from junk shops and street markets. There are two instances of the forms being paired – in effect shackled together – at the centre of the arrangement. 

The title reveals something of the genesis of the work, implying that the objects have a connection with colonialism and slavery. For instance, the title raises questions about whose ‘trophies’ these may be and also what aspect or whose view of ‘empire’ they might commemorate. In a letter written shortly before he died in 2010, Locke explained: 

The cylindrical shapes are ‘bullets’ but I have had to accept that very few people read them this way. In the old days in British Guyana, athletic meetings were big events with prizes given in the form of a cup or trophy, a shiny metal goblet mounted on a black, wooden base. It was a thing of great value to the winner. In the junk stalls of Portobello Road market, in the early 70s the ones I found were bruised and discarded, cheap as dirt. In the studio, they became containing forms awaiting some event or happening that would complete their function in life. When a bullet form was put in each cup a pattern appeared and Trophies began a life of its own ... The bullets in the bottom row of the cabinet, except the one in the middle, were made by boys at Hammersmith House, a remand home in Shepherd’s Bush Road, where I was teaching pottery in 1972–3. 
(Letter from the artist to Tate curator Andreas Leventis, 13 December 2009.) 

In this way the presentation of these hand-made ‘bullets’ in Trophies of Empire can be read as commemorating victims of colonial violence, an interpretation that was addressed by a number of critics when the work was shown in the exhibition The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1989. Corinna Lotz, for instance, found its form to be both ‘threatening and aggressive ... The stark, unadorned, unexplained repetition of one shape in larger and smaller sizes makes it all the more suggestive of destruction’ (Corinna Lotz, ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’, Marxist Monthly, vol.2, no.11, p.482). The tackling of such subject matter by Locke expressed one aspect of his work that is also echoed by his Human Prisoner series and Plantation series of works from 1971, following his return to London from his native Guyana that year. In these works Locke also placed similar ‘bullet’ forms in assemblages that trapped or restrained them to evoke a sense of subjugation related to slavery and loss of identity. The ‘bullets’ can be understood in a number of unspecified ways as both agents and victims of violence: as figures stripped of identity, as phallic forms or lingams that are displayed in a self-celebratory manner or alternatively fettered and emasculated as trophies of the big game hunter. The forms can also be seen as reminiscent of pieces of sugar cane, the crop to which enslaved people were bound and the foundation for colonial wealth. 

A contemporary of artists such as Frank Bowling (born 1936) and Aubrey Williams (1926–1990), Locke was one of a generation who travelled in the 1950s from Guyana to Britain. In 1954 he won a British Council scholarship to come to Britain, studying pottery and sculpture at Bath Academy of Art. Following his studies he returned to Guyana in 1957, the year of its independence, to teach and paint. However, after abandoning painting he returned to London in 1971 to work on mixed media and ceramic sculptures, for which he represented Guyana at the twelfth São Paulo Biennial. 

Alongside work such as Trophies of Empire, Locke also created polished ceramic forms that in suggesting seed pods or gourds can be read as organic fertility symbols. When Trophies of Empire was first exhibited in the group survey Afro-Caribbean Art at the Drum Arts Centre, London, in 1978, it was shown alongside two works of this type – Standing Pot and Seed Pot (whereabouts unknown). The play of duality suggested by such a juxtaposition – between violence and fertility, or human and organic forms – allows for a further shifting of symbolism that the curator Richard J. Powell has suggested challenges both ‘the imperialist agenda and exploited Euro-American racial stereotypes’. For Powell the ‘phallus-like ceramic objects’ of Trophies of Empire and their presentation – mounted in various ways and placed in individual compartments – communicate that however much Locke’s subject was addressed to a shameful history of empire and colonialism, it was one that ‘had a psycho-sexual dimension that shared contemporary philosopher Michel Foucault’s fascination with power, sexuality and alternative histories of civilisation’ (Richard J Powell, ‘Racial Imaginaries’, in Whitechapel Art Gallery 2005, p.25). For the artist Rasheed Araeen, who curated The Other Story, the sexualised content of Trophies of Empire reveals that: 

One can’t, of course, talk about the celebration of sexuality in abstract terms without locating it in specific cultural and historical spaces, when contradictions of gender differences begin to emerge in social relationships. Locke’s work addresses these contradictions, but they are not resolved. The difficulty of resolution is to do with the historical reality they allude to, the history of colonialism and slavery. 
(Rasheed Araeen, ‘The Other Story: Recovering Cultural Metaphors’, in Hayward Gallery 1989, p.90.) 

The work is usually displayed and was intended to be viewed as free-standing. However, it has also been exhibited as a one-sided cabinet attached to a wall. The wooden cabinet was remade in 2004–5 prior to the work’s inclusion in the exhibition Back to Black at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. 

Further reading 
The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1989, p.91. 
Back to Black, Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2005, p.137. 
Donald Locke, Out of Anarchy: Five Decades of Ceramics and Hybrid Sculptures (1959–2009): The Work of Donald Locke, Newark 2011, p.65. 

Andrew Wilson 
January 2015 

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Display caption

Originally from Guyana in the Caribbean, Locke was one of a generation of artists who travelled to Britain in the 1950s after winning a British Council scholarship to study art. Handmade ‘bullets’ sit on cups or trophies that Locke found in junk stalls in Portobello Road market. Locke said ‘When a bullet form was put in each cup a pattern appeared and Trophies began a life of its own.’ The title of the work implies these objects have a connection with colonial violence and slavery. It raises questions about whose ‘trophies’ these may be and whose view of ‘empire’ they might commemorate.

Gallery label, August 2018

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