Donald Locke



Donald Locke 1930–2010
Acrylic paint on paper
Support: 285 × 220 mm
Lent by Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of Timothy Griffith 2020
On long term loan


This is one of a group of three Untitled works on paper in Tate’s collection by the Black British artist Donald Locke (see Tate L04350–52). Dating from 1993, they were executed in acrylic paint on hand-made paper. Each one depicts two or three figures that seem to be dancing together, swinging their arms and legs, or engaging in other exchanges, standing in each other’s proximity or touching each other. More animal-like than human, the figures’ outlines are delineated with sinuous brush marks. They are among many drawings and studies that Locked produced regularly. The figures depicted allude to Masquerade dancers, typical of the artist’s native Guyana and of other countries in the West Indies. Masquerade dancers are performers who wear costumes of specific characters relating to folkloric traditions that can be traced back to the time of slavery and to elements of ritual sub-Saharan African dances of war, guardianship and fertility. Locke often returned to persistent images that lived in his memory. Alongside those of Masquerade dancers, he frequently drew on other images from traditional folk stories and mythologised historical figures.

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,, 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.

Further reading
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,, 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.

Elena Crippa
October 2019

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