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16th May 2023

With ‘The Ambassadors’, Hew Locke seeks to deliver an important message

The Mancunion visits Hew Locke’s stunning new exhibition, ‘The Ambassadors’, at The Lowry
With ‘The Ambassadors’, Hew Locke seeks to deliver an important message
Hew Locke, pictured with ‘The Ambassadors’ Photo: Anna Arca @ The Lowry

Hew Locke is a name few are unfamiliar with in the Art World. The recipient of the Paul Hamlyn Award and the EASTinternational Award, he’s enjoyed a reputation that not many others have. Once again, with The Ambassadors at The Lowry, Locke invites visitors to consider their own history and the legacy of colonialism throughout the world.

It’s been a long road to get The Ambassadors displayed in their full glory. Originally commissioned in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the collection from being displayed. Since then, The Ambassadors have been featured in The Black Fantastic at the Hayward Gallery, London and the Kunsthal Rotterdam in The Netherlands, but, finally, its returned to its home at the Lowry.

Each of the horsemen, created for The Ambassadors, is decorated in a mix of symbols such as Benin coins, flowers inspired by the Victorian language of flowers (Black-Eyed Susans for justice) and skulls. The Horsemen are deliberately ambiguous, even though one of the female statues may be based on a Renaissance knight, Locke leaves you to make your own deductions. “If they have names, I don’t know them” he told me.

The history they carry is ambiguous, as are the empty boxes on their horses back. Most of the pieces were finished pre-pandemic but one was not: the horseman dressed all in black, covered in skulls. “There is something of the pandemic in that” one of the visitors said and its true. That ambassador seemed to carry a sense of death with it.

‘The Ambassadors’ @ Anna Arca

The Ambassadors can be tied to the toppling of the Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, in 2020. Colston was a known slave trader and protestors toppled the statue in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Locke said he was struck by this and how a statue goes from being a grand statue to literally a “lump of metal, a hollow man” when felled. Although The Ambassadors was already underway during this time, Locke said that it made him see his own project in a different light. Statues had always fascinated him and, now, they had taken on yet another level of meaning.

The four titular Ambassadors are surrounded by walls decorated with stock deeds from dead companies, an idea that came to Locke in the wake of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. As he bought stock in dead companies, many of which were based in the Chinese Imperial Government, he drew over them, drawing maps of Africa, America and carvings he had seen. Here, he asks visitors to consider the movement of money, and the impact of colonialism on global economies. As Locke himself said “it always comes down to money”.

‘The Ambassadors’ @Anna Arca

The Lowry have expanded on Hew Locke’s vision, adding their own space where visitors can build their own monuments, to whatever they would like. The monument could be to their home, their parents, even themselves, simply something they would like to see immortalised. Again the exhibition asked visitors to stop and look at themselves, at their own history. In making one’s own monument, one must consider the monuments in their own home cities. Who had they decided to remember in statue form? A monarch? A merchant? A playwright? Where were they from? What did they stand for?

The Ambassadors is an exhibition that deliberately leaves visitors with more questions than answers. Locke renegotiates history and how we remember it. He subverts symbols of colonial power and questions who we choose to remember. Check out the Lowry’s website for information on Locke’s latest exhibition The Ambassadors.

Owen Scott

Owen Scott

Head Arts Editor at the Mancunion and culture journalist

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