There’s a post-colonial, anti-capitalist carnival happening at Tate Britain. And if that doesn’t sound like much fun, that’s because it isn’t. It’s serious.
The colourful procession is British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke’s big new commission for the grand neo-classical central gallery of this old building. There are hundreds of life-size models here. You’re greeted by brightly dressed kids banging drums, flanked by people on horseback draped in flowers, then figures in skull masks dripping with jewels and pearls. The parade courses the length of the gallery, with dozens of faces, figures, outfits and masks. It nods to carnivals, sure, but also to protests, to refugees, to the fleeing of migrants.
The flags and banners being brandished are old currency and share certificates from colonial Panama and Nigeria; the skins of the drums are marked with the insignia of the Russian General Oil Corporation; the dresses are cut from old paintings of Black soldiers and slaves; the horses are wearing images of colonial buildings; there are photos of ships, maps of Africa. This is part celebration, part protest, part funeral march.
It’s about owning history, powerfully and beautifully
Locke is partly trying to draw attention to the history of the Tate. The museum was founded by sugar magnate Henry Tate, who created this place, as the gallery itself says, ‘from wealth derived from an industry previously built on the labour of enslaved African people’, which is a mealy-mouthed, half-arsed way of putting it. But this is the weakest conceptual part of the show. Tate Britain has been hellbent on self-flagellation lately and, although it’s right to admit its guilt and complicity, I think it has vastly overestimated how interested people are in watching an art institution tell itself off.
Way better is when you start to see this big, kaleidoscopic installation as a carnival of reclamation, as a hundred figures not throwing off the weight of the past, but owning it, celebrating its cultural and physical endurance against brutal odds. In a world of old debts, exploitation, oppression, greed and transactions paid for in blood, this is about survival. It’s about embracing history, powerfully and beautifully. It’s a defiant, strong and totally technicolour up yours.