Hew Locke and Indra Khanna on Britain’s Fixation with Its Past

The artist and curator discuss why nobody notices James II in Trafalgar Square and how abolition can be represented in a public space

BY Indra Khanna and Hew Locke in Opinion | 21 AUG 20

For centuries, Britain has been erecting its idea of itself onto the world in the form of statues and imperial architecture. Only recently have we started openly to question what it means. But artist Hew Locke and curator Indra Khanna have been doing so for 20 years. Working with a wide range of media, Locke explores how power is embodied in portraiture, coats-of-arms and public statuary. His work features in the collections of the Tate and Imperial War Museum in London, among others. Khanna, who recently founded the Caribbean Artists’ Salon, has worked as a curator for Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers in London, and been an active member of grassroots artist’s groups such as The Printmakers Council and Brixton Artists Collective. At home over breakfast, they spoke about Britain’s problematic fixations on its past and the influence of its heritage industry.  

Hew Locke: I think it may have started with a visit to India, this interest in statues. For years in the UK, whenever I spoke about colonial history, it was like, ‘Oh God’, I could see people’s eyes just glazing over. But, the colonial legacy was what I grew up with.  

Indra Khanna: India is interesting because there’s just not that many statues around. To have all these statues of famous men; it’s not a global concept. In the UK, it’s almost as if your town isn’t important if you haven’t managed to identify a local who has risen to some sort of prominence, and then you put up a statue of him.

HL: Growing up in Guyana, I remember seeing a statue of Queen Victoria dumped at the back of the Botanical Gardens, and that was really shocking. When the country became a republic, it was deemed necessary to have a national hero. So we found somebody – Cuffy, the 18th-century leader of a slave rebellion – and we made a statue to him, and we all went along to the unveiling, because you were nothing as a country without a statue of a national hero. 

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Monument on Square of the Revolution, Georgetown, Guyana, 1763, commemorating Cuffy, leader of the 1763 slave rebellion on the Bernice sugar plantation, designed by Philip Moore. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

IK: Whenever we’d see a good public statue, we’d always walk over and look at it, and there was often admiration for the skill of the sculptor.

HL: There was, but my attitude has changed over the years. I no longer overlook the fact that those sculptors were serving a lie: they were bolstering up the ego of the empire.

IK: Nobody blames renaissance artists in Florence for bolstering the Medici though.

HL: I think the point here is that statues, such as the one in Bristol to the slaver Edward Colston, which was toppled during the recent BLM protests, went up in the late 19th century. Colston died in 1721, but his statue was created in 1895. There’s a parallel here with the US: we can’t critique confederate statues going up to bolster white supremacy and then let off these 19th-century sculptors. I mean, they were just doing their job, but their views absolutely chimed with the beliefs of the time.

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Hew Locke, Columbus, Central Park, 2018, from the series 'Patriots', mixed media on aluminium-mounted C-type photograph, 83 × 122 × 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York; photograph: Angus Mills

IK: It’s almost like Colston was put up in order to forget, rather than to remember. We did a joint proposal as artist and curator years ago, to re-dress the statue in Shrewsbury of Robert Clive – a founding figure of British colonial rule in India. Clive’s statue wasn’t erected until a century after he died and it’s not a coincidence that it was just after the First Indian War of Independence in 1857. Has your opinion changed because of BLM? Before, we probably thought these statues shouldn’t disappear altogether but that they should be moved or recontextualized. It’s been quite a shakeup to realize that they can just … go.

HL: For me, it’s a bit different: I realized I wanted the statues to stay so that I could have a go at them, so that they could become my canvas. In 2015, when protestors called for the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford, I remember thinking: ‘No, don’t get rid of him! Leave him right there - I’ve got plans for him!’

IK: So how did you feel when you turned on the news and saw Colston’s statue pulled down?

HL: Complete shock, because I didn’t think it was possible, and then, suddenly, it was easy. And what’s interesting is the materiality of the statue. It’s just a piece of metal, it’s not important.

IK: It’s literally a hollow man. This moment is not really about statues, though; it’s about living human beings. But some people have become fixated on ‘saving’ the statues.

HL: The statues are symbolic of a system. Yes, you can take them down, but that’s not going to put food on people’s tables. For future generations, we need to change the educational curriculum. Slavery and its legacy need to be taught to all as a major part of British history.

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Hew Locke, Souvenir 2 (Edward VII in Masonic Regalia), 2019, mixed media on antique Parian Ware, 57 × 38 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Hales Gallery, London, and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York; photograph: Stuart Whipps

IK: Why have we got this idea that once a statue goes up it is sacrosanct? In ancient Rome, when a new emperor came to power, statues of their predecessors came down across the empire. Sometimes, they would just replace the old emperor’s heads with the new ones. And, if someone was considered a traitor, every image of them would be removed from coins, murals, statues. In Britain, we seem fixated on keeping everything, as if it’s all valuable – but it’s not all valuable.

HL: That’s because it’s all part of our tourist offer. The double standard is that, when Saddam Hussein falls and his statue is pulled down, that’s apparently a good thing. But to get rid of a monument to somebody like Colston, who was as vile …

IK: … apparently that’s a slippery slope towards something bad. So, you’re saying part of this country’s preoccupation with keeping these monuments relates to preserving a particular version of 'our history': the story of Britain?

HL: Exactly. The Royal Family … Britain wins World War II, we’re the good guys, and hence we have sprung forth from this history, and …

IK: … so the British are naturally fair-minded and naturally good …

HL: … so how dare you say anything against Churchill!

IK: Other countries have put their problematic monuments in graveyard sculpture parks – like Coronation Park in Delhi. People say: ‘Keep the statues up or put them somewhere so we can learn from them.’ But you don’t learn anything from just looking at a statue of someone.

HL: A sculpture park – pointless; put in museums – that’s not pointless. But then it becomes a financial issue: do you spend millions upgrading museums or do you invest that in living black people’s lives, frankly.

Statue of James II in Trafalgar Square, London, 1686. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

IK: Do urban spaces, such as Trafalgar Square in London, where you’re surrounded by statues of slave owners like George Washington, make you feel like that space isn’t yours?

HL: Hardly anyone notices the statue of James II there, partly because he’s in fancy dress as a Roman emperor. Before James became king he was Duke of York, and was governor of the Royal African Company. That company shipped more slaves from Africa to the Americas than any other. And thousands of slaves were branded DY, for Duke of York, on their flesh. He was Colston’s boss. You can’t have a celebratory statue of someone like that in a public place. It does have to go. 

IK: So, in your art, by reworking these statues, you’re gaining control over them.

HL: It’s sort of to vaccinate myself against them. I keep seeing, in my mind’s eye, Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square broken off at an angle, like the broken columns in a cemetery. I keep seeing it.

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Hew Locke, The Jurors, 2015, bronze, 3.8 × 9 m, commissioned by Surrey County Council and the National Trust. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Tom D. Morgan 

IK: What alternative commemorations could there be? How could abolition be represented in a public space?

HL: Well, we don’t have to put up statues everywhere. It can be something that people can interact with. Everyone in Brixton knows Windrush Square, an open space with seating. Everyone knows The Windrush is the ship which brought West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948. That type of thing does work.

IK: There needs to be a dignified place where people can go to pay their respects and reflect, equivalent to The Cenotaph war memorial on Whitehall in London. They’re not happy places, but they’re necessary.

HL: I think, we need a major memorial here to enslaved people. I wouldn’t want to see it in Liverpool or Bristol, because London has been previously allowed to skate over its complicity: ‘We didn’t do anything, it was those people in Bristol, those people in Liverpool!’ In fact, the city of Bath would be a good place, the people who created and lived in the midst of all that beauty and elegance were doing so off of the backs of slaves.

IK: No, what you need is something big, right in the middle of the capital, which cannot be ignored.

HL: I think that’s it. Whatever form it takes, we need someplace where Black Britons can go and say: ‘OK, yes: this is now acknowledging the history of Britain.’

Main image: Hew Locke, Pilgrim, Central Park, 2018, from the series ‘Patriots’, mixed media on aluminium-mounted C-type photograph, 83 × 122 × 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York; photograph: Angus Mills