As one of Birmingham’s most famous statues, Queen Victoria has watched over the city since it was first unveiled in 1901. Sir Thomas Brock’s marble figure was then recast in bronze by William Bloye and members of the Birmingham School of Art for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Now, 70 years later, she has been reimagined. We chat to acclaimed Guyanese-British artist HEW LOCKE on his re-creation.
Presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival and commissioned by Ikon, the public artwork – titled Foreign Exchange – is Locke’s first temporary public sculpture, culminating from two decades of research and exploration into historic statues, and considers our place in the Commonwealth, the present moment and stories of from the city and surrounding area.
Located in Birmingham’s Civic Quarter and reaching more than seven meters high, Foreign Exchange wraps around the existing Queen Victoria statue, preserving its original state. The aim is to draw attention to the original craftsmanship of Brock and Bloye while bringing a diverse social and historic focus to a heritage asset that is often overlooked by passers-by.
Tell us more about ‘Foreign Exchange’, what’s the thinking behind it?
This has been something I’ve been wanting to do for decades, and I do mean decades. Since 2001 I’ve been proposing this type of thing. Then, in 2017 I was having discussions with Jonathan Watkins from Ikon about doing something similar in Birmingham. We thought the obvious thing was to do a reimagination of the Queen Victoria statue, the most central statue in Birmingham. As for me, I thought you pitch high and you see where you can go! We started having meetings with the council and they went well. I thought, these guys are taking this seriously you know, and then we’re all thinking this is possible – each figure wears a helmet, reminiscent of that worn by Britannia, and a replica medal signifying an important battle in the history of the British Empire.
You describe it as an object of veneration, and you want it to be a catalyst for a battalion of them. Are you suggesting you want to do this in other cities as well?
If I was allowed, yes. But it’s a tricky thing, a very complicated process; technically, very complicated. You cannot interfere with the statue. This is a Birmingham monument, but it’s also a national monument as well. When Foreign Exchange comes down it will literally be as if nothing happened whatsoever, and that’s very, very important.
Do you think it’s possible to reset the image of statues, even those that are contentious?
It’s possible to reset people’s memories of a statue, and I’m hoping that in a year’s time somebody walking through here will see it afresh in their memory and reflect back on it as a strange dream. I imagine many people walk past, they see it, but out of the corner of their eye. They hurry. They’re late for work or something like that. This is about changing people’s perception of something, so they see it afresh. They see the artistry in the original statue.
How powerful do you think something like this could be on something more contentious – the Edward Colston statue perhaps or something along those lines? Do you think that would work, or is that still better off in a canal?
That’s history, and that’s down to local people discussing whether something like this could work in their context. The Colston thing, that’s now part of history as we all know.
You have reimagined many artworks of Royalty and those in power, and also many sinister characters. You embellish them with lace, with jewels and many other items. Do they have a significant meaning to you?
Some of them have a separate meaning to me, but they have that amalgamated meaning too. They represent reflections and ideas of Empire, of ideas of history, of the phrase the ‘burden of history’. The makeup of Birmingham is because of the time of Empire, and that’s the face of Britain. Britain is shaped by that; the Commonwealth is shaped by that.
I’ve seen your work of the Queen Mother, stating she had almost become immortal. Is our current Queen somehow immortal now do you think?
Nobody is immortal as we know, but the Queen is quite an extraordinary person. That thing she did with Paddington Bear is one of the most charming things done this year. It was absolutely delightful.
Are you a Royal fan then?
I’m not a Royalist, but I’m definitely not a Republican. I’m somebody who simply finds them fascinating. I find the Queen in particular fascinating because she has always been there. She’s seen so much. She meets with her Prime Ministers once a week and there’s so much stuff that’s in her head; she’s a walking font of history basically. And wearing that lime green outfit – that was quite a thing!
What comes first the artwork or the message?
The artwork has to come first. The message, whatever message or whatever thing is in there, is there anyway but the artwork has to come first. Art is a visual language, it’s about drawing people in and if they are interested in paying attention to what the deeper ideas are, then great. If they’re not, that’s fine too, but people must come and see something of impact. That’s what I feel about my work in general.
What’s your next piece of work going to be?
My next piece of work is taking place in New York, on the front of the Metropolitan Museum. It’s something called the Façade Commission that happens every year or year and a half. There are four niches at the front of the Metropolitan Museum which were destined originally for statues which were never made, so now it’s a bit like the Metropolitan’s version of the fourth plinth, and I’m doing the next commission in September. It’s exciting and terrifying, a bit like this.
The story is that you didn’t come and see Foreign Exchange on its opening night?
No, no I didn’t, I was too nervous! So I visited this morning and I was like, “hey It’s alright!”.
THE BIRMINGHAM 2022 FESTIVAL
Birmingham’s showpiece festival aims to unite people from around the Commonwealth through a celebration of creativity. The six-month long programme will shine a spotlight on the region’s rich and diverse culture with more than 200 projects showcasing art, photography, dance, theatre and digital art.
Running beyond the conclusion of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games in September, it is estimated the event will reach more than 2.5 million people in person and online.
To learn more, view the full programme of events or get involved click HERE