Hew Locke is best known for his sculptures and installations, but three years ago he started work in a medium new to him, photography, resulting in a spectacular gallery of six studio portraits – "How Do You Want Me?" His perennial themes of power, spin and national cultural identity are raised to a new intensity. The photographs are life-sized, echoing the portraits of aristocratic ancestors that stare down at us from the walls of the stately homes of England. The demonic central figure is a type of evil or threat to the State made flesh. Locke has conjured up a parade of inherently sinister figures - corrupt kings, generals, tyrants and bandits.
Hew Locke grew up in Guyana and this new series has allowed him to explore a mixture of national identity, personal fantasy, and socio-political caricatures. The duality of Hew’s characters is integral to the work; whilst he is playing a part, he is also parodying himself.
Tyger Tyger is a costume derived from the famous Redcoats of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Adorned with trophies of war, self-awarded medals, scalps and babies’ heads, it alludes to shrunken heads, or child soldiers. They are a reminder of how many he has killed to reach this point of power. The cheap fabric patterned backdrop is a pirated Versace design based on heraldic imagery.
Congo Man immediately brings to mind Blood Diamonds, The Heart of Darkness and African conflict. But the title also refers to a controversial Trinidadian calypso comedy song by The Mighty Sparrow (a wildly perverse pastiche on African roots, interracial revenge, interracial sex, oral sex and cannibalism). Banned from the radio until 1989, the song plays with the sexual stereotypes of white and black, and also the cultural tensions between black Africans and Afro-Caribbean’s.
How Do You Want Me? is the question many people ask when posing for their portrait for posterity at a high-street photographer's. Studio photography is an obvious inspiration - whether from Africa, from studio photos of the Maharaja's, photographs of the Black Panthers, or the video statements and familiar imagery from hostage-takers and terrorists.
Several of the works reference ideas of Albion and Arthurian legend. Some contain the Queen's motto Honi soit que mal y pense (Evil be to him who thinks Evil of it), a constant mantra throughout Locke's work. They also draw on images of the Black Jacobeans (such as Toussaint L'Overture, the leader of the slave revolution in Haiti).
Most importantly, the series knits together several strands of Locke's previous work; re-presentations of civic statues in the Natives and Colonials series, the drawings improvised from Velasquez and Goya portraits of the Spanish Royal family and his Menace to Society sculptures.
Hew Locke was born in Edinburgh, lived in Guyana for 24 years and is now based in London. Hew has been commissioned to design a permanent artwork for the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and is part of the forthcoming group show Now Then at the Bluecoat Art Centre, Liverpool. Recently, Hew participated in Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. His works are included in several prestigious collections such as the Brooklyn Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum drawing collection, the British Museum and the Henry Moore Institute.