Birmingham Museums acquires work by leading contemporary artist

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Birmingham Museums acquires work by leading contemporary artist
Hew Locke, Souvenir 9 (Queen Victoria), 2019. Mixed media on antique Parian ware. Hales Gallery/photo by Anna Arca.

BIRMINGHAM.- Birmingham Museums has acquired a sculpture by leading contemporary artist Hew Locke for the city’s collection. Made in 2019, Souvenir 9 (Queen Victoria) is the first work by the artist to be acquired for the city.

To coincide with the acquisition, a free event with artists Hew Locke and Matt Smith will explore commemorating and contesting Empire with Victorian ceramics, discussing the ways they have responded to 19th-century ceramics in their own work. The conversation between the two leading contemporary artists will take place online on Friday 25 June, 11am – 12 noon, and will be chaired by Dr Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, who is a cultural and social historian of race, science and empire in the modern world.

Hew Locke is a Guyanese-British sculptor whose work across a range of media often explores colonial histories and legacies. Souvenir 9 (Queen Victoria) is one of a series of pieces in which Locke takes original 19th-century porcelain busts of British royalty and dresses them in elaborate regalia. Here, the dressing of the bust of Queen Victoria includes coins, chains, medals and military badges, and an image of one of the ivory masks looted following the British sacking of Benin City in 1897. Locke comments that the busts are ‘weighed down by the literal burden of history and this goes back to my idea of how a nation creates itself, what stories it sells to itself and how this relates to ideas of Britain and its history that are weighing down the minds of people today’.

In the 19th century, images of Queen Victoria were commissioned for colonised places across the world to express and consolidate British power. One of Hew Locke’s enduring early memories is of a statue of her that had stood outside the High Court in Georgetown, Guyana. This had been dynamited and decapitated in an act of anti-colonial protest, and then relegated to the city’s Botanic Gardens. Controversially, it was returned to its former location in front of the High Court in 1990. Locke has repeatedly returned to images of Queen Victoria in his work.

Toby Watley, Director of Collections at Birmingham Museums Trust says: “We are delighted to have been able to acquire this piece by Hew Locke for the city. Birmingham Museums Trust is committed to acquiring work by groundbreaking artists and creative practitioners that builds on the strengths of Birmingham’s nationally and internationally significant collection. One of the themes we’re exploring in our research and collecting is the relationship between Victorian art and design and Empire, and how contemporary artists and makers of colour are engaging with 19th-century objects and their histories in their own work. Souvenir 9 (Queen Victoria) is an exciting addition to the city’s collection and will enable new perspectives on Birmingham’s historic ceramics and sculpture.”

Artist Hew Locke was born in Edinburgh, spent his formative years in Guyana, and subsequently studied at Falmouth University and the Royal College of Art. He now lives and works in London. Locke works across a wide range of media, often exploring ideas around nationhood, national mythmaking, the burden of history, and its resonances in the present day.

In 2010, Locke's work, Sikandar, was shortlisted for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. In 2015, his piece The Jurors, a public artwork at Runnymede commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, was nominated for the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association’s 2016 Marsh Award for excellence in public sculpture. The most comprehensive exhibition of Locke’s work to date, Here’s The Thing, was staged at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in 2019.

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