Over the years Guyanese-British sculptor Hew Locke has captivated audiences with his thought-provoking works that challenge traditional notions of power, identity, and history. His latest exhibition, The Ambassadors, currently on display at The Lowry in Salford, UK delves deep into the languages of colonial and post-colonial power. Through his intricate and layered artworks, Locke prompts us to consider how different cultures construct their identities through visual symbols of authority, and how these representations evolve over time.
Central to The Ambassadors are four captivating black figures on horseback, acting as envoys from the past to the future. Hew Locke’s attention to detail is evident as each horseman is adorned with a mesmerizing array of symbols, including Benin coins, flowers inspired by the Victorian language of flowers, and skulls. These deliberate choices leave room for interpretation, allowing visitors to form their own deductions about the meaning behind each figure. Locke himself stated, “If they have names, I don’t know them,” further emphasizing the enigmatic nature of these sculptures.
The journey to bring The Ambassadors to its full glory has been a long and arduous one. Originally commissioned in 2019, the exhibition was unfortunately hindered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, preventing its initial display. However, the collection found temporary homes at the Hayward Gallery in London and the Kunsthal Rotterdam in The Netherlands before finally returning to its intended venue, The Lowry.
The history encapsulated within The Ambassadors is shrouded in ambiguity, further heightened by the presence of empty boxes on the horses’ backs. While most of the pieces were completed prior to the pandemic, one horseman stands out—the figure dressed in black, covered in skulls. Visitors have drawn connections between this particular ambassador and the sense of death and despair that permeated the pandemic. It serves as a poignant reminder of the impact of global crises on our collective consciousness.
The Ambassadors holds a profound connection to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. Colston, a known slave trader, saw his statue fall amidst the outcry following the murder of George Floyd. This event deeply affected Locke, causing him to reevaluate his own project and view statues in a new light. Statues, once grand symbols of power, can quickly transform into mere hollow figures devoid of meaning. The toppling of Colston’s statue added another layer of significance to Locke’s exploration of history and memory.
Within the exhibition, Locke’s artistry extends beyond the horsemen. The walls surrounding The Ambassadors are adorned with stock deeds from defunct companies, inspired by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. As Locke acquired these stock deeds, many of which were tied to the Chinese Imperial Government, he transformed them into canvases for his creativity. Drawing maps of Africa, America, and carving intricate designs, he invites visitors to reflect on the movement of money and the lasting impact of colonialism on global economies. As Locke aptly stated, “it always comes down to money.”
The Lowry has embraced Hew Locke’s vision and expanded upon it, offering visitors a space to build their own monuments. In this interactive experience, individuals are encouraged to create monuments that represent something meaningful to them—whether it be their home, their parents, or even themselves. This invitation prompts visitors to consider the monuments present in their own cities and question who they have chosen to memorialize. Monuments have long served as a reflection of societal
Hew Locke’s ‘The Ambassadors”, in on view at The Lowry in Salford, UK until the 25 June