Travelling from one end of Tate Britain to the other, bright, multicoloured figures are on parade as part of a major new public installation that addresses urgent contemporary issues including the climate emergency, Black Lives Matter and the invasion of Ukraine.
Unveiled on Monday, The Procession by Hew Locke is made up of 150 life-sized figures staging a powerful and unsettling procession.
Intricately handmade, with an abundance of bold colours, the figures represent people of all ages travelling from one end of the gallery to the other, through geography, time and culture. It sparks ideas of pilgrimage, migration, trade, carnival, protest, social celebrations as well as our own individual journey through life.
“The refugee crisis, the climate emergency and colonialism are, to a certain extent, eternal themes,” Locke said. “These concerns are concerns I’ve had for a very long time. And it seems that tragically they’ll always be with us. We have a current situation we’re looking at in the news every day, and it’s traumatic.”
Locke’s figures carry historical and cultural baggage with them on their journey. Costumes and flags bear images of decaying Guyanese architecture, evidence of rising sea levels, cargo and sail boats, tropical prints and slave ships.
There are several reworked and painted over copies of now-defunct share certificates – an area the artist has been exploring for more than two decades.
“The refugee crisis is represented in a Greek share certificate, which was a Greek government refugee loan in 1924 following the Turkish-Greek war. I’ve been using these things to talk about the refugee crisis including the refugee camps in Greece following the war in Syria. There are still people getting on rickety boats today.”
Locke’s installation takes as its starting point the architecture and history of the gallery itself, and its founding benefactor – the sugar refining magnate Henry Tate.
“Sugar has a dark and difficult history. The piece is tailored for this space, if I was showing in another venue, I may be showing something slightly different.”
One of the pieces in the Tate collection that Locke has incorporated into his work is The Death of Major Peirson, which celebrates the British defence of Jersey against French invasion in 1781 and pays tribute to a young major who lost his life.
“The central figure in this painting is a black marksman, and next to him is this dying major, his master. It’s a very complicated painting, because this black guy was probably never there. He’s there as a symbol of loyalty of the colonies to the crown.”
The Procession is the latest in Tate Britain’s ongoing series of annual commissions in its Duveen galleries.
Elena Crippa, senior curator of modern and contemporary British art, said it was made by modelling cardboard, sewing custom-printed fabrics, adapting new and secondhand clothes and assembling found and cast elements.
“As the project grew in scale, the number of associations Hew brought to the commission, encompassing personal memories and references to historical events, also grew,” she said. “Hew’s aim was always to be able to make enough figures to create a strong sense of presence in the large Duveen galleries at Tate Britain and the scale of his work is extraordinary.
“The figures also needed to be convincing to give a sense of the liveliness and movement of a collective gathering or procession.”
Locke said he hoped the piece would inspire people to “question things a bit more … how did we get here, the complex cities of history, the messiness of history”.
“The figures are moving as if they’re going with a direction, but we don’t know where their ultimate destination is. We can’t see the future, we’re certainly finding that out right now. So they’re walking into a sort of cinematic fadeout, to appear again somewhere else.”
Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, said: “The Procession is a powerful body of work that reflects on globalisation, colonialism, conflict, ecology and cultural identity.
“Alongside our Life Between Islands exhibition, this has been an exciting year of celebrating Caribbean British artists at Tate Britain, underscoring our commitment to showcase art that is reflective of the cross-cultural society we service.”