The legacy of colonialism looms large over Hew Locke’s exhibition “Here’s the Thing” at Kemper Museum. The artist describes himself as part of the last generation of Guyanans to receive a “colonial education;” he was born in England, moved to the newly independent Guyana at age five, and has spent his life in both countries.
Boats are everywhere in Locke’s artwork as symbols of trade, colonialism and migration, but Locke also paints, builds and collages with other symbols, including bank notes and the faces of kings and queens. A grand sense of opulence permeates his work, as his paintings and sculptures are often adorned with gold and jewels.
Locke’s “Souvenir” series comprises plaster and resin busts of British royals including Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. But the austere, neo-classical busts are absolutely covered in gold ornaments, chains and jewels, as if they were pagan idols. All the kings and queens hail from the colonial period, making the artworks’ titles, ‘Souvenir,’ an intentional understatement. The ornamentation directly reminds the viewer of the wealth these imperialists captured, stole and extracted from their foreign colonies.
Another room of the exhibition is filled with dozens of model boats hanging from the ceiling, sculptures from Locke’s “Armada” series. Many of the miniature vessels are constructed from actual model kits depicting modern and historic boats from across the world. Most are also collaged with other objects, while some ‘boats’ are built entirely out of found plastic and wood, string and cloth.
The diverse fleet calls to mind the vast history and many purposes of sailing, but the Armada’s mismatched and improvised nature specifically reminds one of refugee boats — boats not used for business or war or pleasure, but refurbished vessels created out of dire necessity and made from whatever is on hand.
Another set of works, “Chinese Imperial Gold Loan” numbers 11-14, comprises collages done on top of antique bank notes. The actual notes were issued by European banks in the 19th century to facilitate gold mining in China. Locke paints pictures of the African and South American continent on top of the old documents, connecting the historical line of European colonialism in Imperial China to modern-day efforts by the People’s Republic of China to acquire natural resources from the developing world.
“It can’t help but be noted that these banknote paintings resonate with a controversy faced by Kemper Museum, kicked off last fall when activists called on the museum to cut ties with one of its trustees, Mariner Kemper. Mariner Kemper is CEO and chairman of the UMB Financial Corp (UMB Bank). The bank represents bondholders for the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which houses ICE detainees. Although Mariner Kemper has stated that the bank “does not represent the facility or their decisions,” the bank is engaged in a lawsuit on behalf of bondholders against the city of Central Falls for the city’s decision to stop working with ICE.
There is deep irony here. Both UMB Bank and Kemper Museum were founded, partly but not entirely, through the fortunes of multiple generations of the Kemper family. Part of that fortune, Kemper Museum, displays artworks which are highly critical of amoral banking during historical colonialism, while another part of the fortune, UMB Bank, engages in a lawsuit that collaborates in today’s amoral refugee policy. Mariner Kemper is caught between his legal obligations to UMB Bank and the moral obligations many expect of a museum trustee.
Hew Locke couldn’t have predicted this specific scandal, but its existence should come as no surprise. Locke might paint on antique bank bonds, but bank bonds still exist and play a role in today’s systems of bondage and oppression. Art has been entrenched in this system for hundreds of years.
And what exactly is that system? Locke has titled his exhibition “Here’s the Thing.” The phrase has a conversational tone, something you say before you dive into an explanation and try to get the core of a confounding topic. But Locke never explicitly tells us what the “thing” is. You could call it imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, the market, the invisible hand or dozens of other words. Some might even call it Moloch or Mammon! Locke, instead of naming it, just declares the “thing” present. Here’s the Thing! And through his artwork, he reveals a few of its historical representatives like kings, queens, banknotes, gold and jewels.
But Locke’s exhibition is not a sad or somber affair. There is a definite sense of hope, that things can be different. When Locke defaces a bank note and draws a new picture on it, or paints over a picture of a dead queen, he shows these are only false idols, that they no longer hold the power they once did.
Perhaps the most hopeful works in Locke’s exhibition are the watercolors titled “Guyana House Boat.” Locke skillfully depicts well-constructed houseboats that feel strong and inviting. Here, the boat is not a device of war or colonialism or a desperate act of the refugee, nor even a transitory vessel to get you from one place to another. A house boat is a home, a place to rest, even while one moves. If the rest of Locke’s work focuses on an unjust history, his houseboats dream of a better way.
“Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through Jan. 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday – Wednesday, 10 a.m. to -9 p.m. Thursday – Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday – Sunday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.
All works© the artist and Hales Gallery, London, courtesy Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS), London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York