A queen died. A nation mourned. The world watched. Her portrait appears everywhere. Her crowned head looked down at me from a billboard in New Jersey, smiling, beatific, as I drove home from the shopping center. But I could only think of another portrait of a queen, made by Hew Locke and called Koh-i-noor (2005). In this portrait her face is unreadable, while her crown is composed of vicious swords fanning out like a menacing halo. She is a terrifying beauty. When the queen died, it was almost impossible not to be enveloped in the spectacle of prescribed grief. Across the former British Empire and even beyond, politicians uttered words of commemoration, sports games were cancelled, bouquets and wreaths lined statues, many governments demanded an expression of sorrow that could be held in meaningless silences for a minute or two.
In Locke’s portrait, the queen’s facial features emerge slowly from the multiple layers of plastic, greenery, baubles and toys he has used to sculpt this figure. She is shown from the neck up as she might be imprinted on a commemorative coin or banner. He integrates baubles and toys, greenery and plastic in lieu of the livery, the gold, and the sparkling jewels we associate with monarchic celebration. While she has no mouthpiece, this queen is certainly not silent, for Locke’s installation exudes a profuse and vibrant materiality through its sheen, texture, and color. Unlike those elliptical spaces of mourning regulated by governments, this portrait has more in common with the excessive sensuality of opulent spectacle that so often surrounds state-sanctioned pageantry, such as the queen’s funeral itself. Koh-i-noor is pageantry in its most kitschy glory. But it’s also deadly serious. The plastic swords with their blades pointing outwards bristle with an aggression that is activated by the reds and golds that spread across the work. The ruby red spheres of the swords also evoke the bloodied refusals of power, the violence of imperial rebellion, the breakdown of the coherent strands that connected people and places into the circuits of trade that formed the British Empire. Although this work was made to mark the Golden Jubilee in 2002, its ability to materialize the historical processes of extraction on which the British empire and its monarchy were built remains crucial.
s I later watched parts of the funeral, I was intrigued by the banality of its staging: the interminable drone of names, the list of endless facts about protocol, tradition, and even livery going back hundreds of years, the continual return to organizational practices and logistics. But for those paying attention, there were other stories on view here. As people lined the streets of London on September 19, they also watched a coffin being carried on State Gun Carriage of the Royal Navy. As Dan Hicks pointed out, this gun carriage was designed in the last decade of the nineteenth century, specifically to support British colonial-military expansion on the continent of Africa. Commentators made all sorts of observations about this procession, but I heard nothing about this aspect of its history. Once the coffin was transferred – with some effort – from the gun carriage to a hearse with very large windows, it was driven through more streets so that more people could catch a last glimpse of their queen, dead and boxed, lying in state, with the crown jewels perched on top of the coffin’s lid. The crown itself offers another story of plunder, as it is constructed from precious stones looted from India and Africa. This is the history that Locke’s piece refers to in its title, the name of the legendary diamond that passed into the British Crown Jewels collection in 1877 after Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in Delhi. Indeed, from a distance this portrait looks as if it’s constructed from succulent bunches of glistening orbs almost as if Locke had taken an out of focus impression of a jeweled crown and used it as a model to arrange this piece. During Elizabeth’s funeral, the crown, a signifier of the extravagance and excessive violence of the monarchy, was perched atop the coffin and was instead offered like a personal memento, a metonym for the queen, a ruler, but also a mother, a grandmother, the head of a family.
Once upon a time British colonial administrators used various festivals to perform, discipline and then enfold locals into an Empire often imagined as a family. This too is part of the history to which Locke’s portrait refers. Those circulating images of the monarch, in sculpture and in paint, on print and in relief, adorn the spaces of the former British Empire. The monarch – or at least her head – became a symbol that moved across the Empire as their head of state, an ultimately empty sign of protection, while the resources of Empire passed into Britain. On crests and banners, in Durbars and Exhibitions, in Festivals and Anniversaries, and here now at this funeral too, the body of the monarch could be exchanged and even stand in for the wealth of her nations. At the funeral this exchange/occlusion took place as the quotidian became opulent even as the opulent became quotidian, materializing for viewers and attendees an affective affiliation with a family, with a nation, with a global community. In September 2022 the British royal family became a symbol of a family in mourning. And through this performance of mourning, we were neatly called into a global network of connection that is symbolized by and supposedly held together by the queen herself – a network whose basis is not, in fact, grief but rather something like extraction.
However. The death of Elizabeth II did not unilaterally inspire feelings of grief across the former British Empire. For many of us, it prompted anger and presented an important opportunity to emphasize this history of extraction, a reminder that the monarchy has always been sustained by and complicit in the colonial project. As I was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Australia and New Zealand, surrounded by monuments and place markers commemorating monarchs of the past, the crown and whoever wears it, holds little relevance or meaning for me. Writers, academics, activists from across the globe have reminded us – as they have done for years – of these histories of violence. Those were the stories I read, and spoke about, even as messages of sympathy and sadness about the queen’s death populated some of my family WhatsApp groups. The irritating way that any criticism of the monarchy and of Elizabeth herself was deflected and dismissed by an emphasis on her public service, her duty, and her faith is indicative of the willful ignorance about empire that lies at the heart of Britishness. It is also an example of the banality of power, the routinization of terror described by Achile Mbembe and others, which works through practices and processes that enforce feelings of conviviality and connection between the ruled and their rulers. And so, despite my disinterest in and disregard and deep disdain for the British monarchy, the death of the queen made me aware, again, that it is an entity through which I also come into view. I am a subject of Empire, subjected to its organizational, bureaucratic, and even cultural logic.
Locke stages his installation so that his queen looks back at the viewer, a reminder of this process of coming into being, but also a reminder that viewership takes place across a range of positions. The portrait swirls into a rhythmic differentiation of color and texture. The swords mark out the gilding of a crown around the queen’s head, while clusters of gold and green, leaf-like arrangements frame her forehead and the sides of her face. From the top of her neck an assortment of flatter, thicker blades and round plastic balls gush downwards towards the floor. Objects with no clear connection to each other form a stunning coherence, not unlike the aesthetic of pageantry itself. This work mimics a kind of abstraction of the image modeling how faces, designs, performances, and slogans become symbols that can be used out of context, because, ultimately, they exist as metonyms for a much larger and more ominous form of power. While Locke’s work returns the politics of empire to popular conceptions of the monarchy, it also reminds us of why it is important to see and look for these confluences.
His installation mimics the excess of pageantry by evoking these almost surreal parallels between different moments of national and colonial spectacle. He does this not to evoke nostalgia (which is what pageantry often does by emptying these historical moments of meaning); rather, in an ornate way, he makes these connections to empty these celebratory moments of the superficiality that spectacle might allow. What remains? The bewilderment created by this piece is accentuated by streams of crystal baubles that hang from blades like twinkling waterfalls of diamonds as if to suggest that this work literally drips with meaning. These moments appeal to us – they attract and bedazzle us, their appeal formed through the accumulation of plastic products, products that are, like the monarch they shape, disposable. A reality that the ritual of mourning can also occlude. While the title refers to the historical global economic underpinning the British Empire, these plastic trinkets also reflect a new global economy in which disposability and violence are no longer symbolized by a head of state, but actually form the conduits of power and labor that shape the lives people lead.
Animating the spectacle of colonial nostalgia, Locke also draws out its most alienating implications: the fragile violence that women and men are subjected to in the name of nation, statehood, and so-called peace. While he ably evokes the tensions of history, the political implications embedded in his aesthetics are richly powerful. Refusing to denigrate these forms of public commemoration as unimportant or mere manipulation, he takes their constructions and their meanings seriously. By unraveling these articulations he discloses their various formulations – how they work, what they do and how they can circulate. In his own way Locke too loves a spectacle, but his spectacle, bristling and bloodied, is not so easy to dismiss.
To see oneself called into being through these processes of colonial formation is, as writers like Samuel Selvon and Jamaica Kincaid have described, profoundly alienating. Alienation seems to leave little room for other scales of emotion and affiliation. However, Locke’s play with the excess of colonial nostalgia – the refusal to acknowledge empire, while also desiring its organization of power and feeling – is also an activation of the continual oscillations these expressions take, their surfeit of meaning, their jostling disjuncture, where nothing seems to make sense, yet somehow shifts into various forms of coherence. It is from this kaleidoscopic formation that other affective registers come into being: the scales of anger and comfort, disconnection and familiarity, strangeness and understanding that cannot be contained in public forms of commemoration, that might be elided or ignored, but still remain the conditions of living and imagining different modes of kinship and connection, beyond the geopolitics of Empire building.