Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon launch Foreign Exchange

16 June 2022

Birmingham’s city-centre sculpture of Queen Victoria has been reimagined by acclaimed Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke. Presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival and commissioned by Ikon, Foreign Exchange will remain on view through the summer and during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

This temporary work is seen within the context of a wide-reaching festival of performances, events and projects which all consider our place in the Commonwealth, the present moment and stories of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Originally unveiled in 1901, Sir Thomas Brock’s marble figure of Queen Victoria was recast in bronze by William Bloye and members of the Birmingham School of Art for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Seventy years on, Locke draws attention to the original craftsmanship of Brock and Bloye, meanwhile bringing a diverse social and historic focus to a Birmingham heritage asset. A monument overlooked by passers-by, it is brought into the twenty-first century to become a significant contemporary artistic gesture.

Reaching over seven meters high, Foreign Exchange wraps around the existing Queen Victoria statue, preserving its original state. Depicting a boat carrying five smaller replica statues of Queen Victoria, 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. Exploring the symbolic power of public monuments, Locke’s vision is to create “an iconic image, leading a cohort of other statues to represent the home nation throughout the Empire”. Locke often uses titles that can be read in different ways; Foreign Exchange might remind us of the exchange of cultures, wealth, labour and DNA that happened during the Empire – all of which continue across the Commonwealth today.

Born in Edinburgh in 1959, Locke lived in Georgetown, Guyana, from 1966 to 1988 before returning to the UK. His interest in the power of statues originates from his childhood in Guyana where he passed a sculpture of Queen Victoria every day on the way to school. Whilst he has been reimagining historical statues for twenty years, Foreign Exchange is Locke’s first temporary public sculpture. His detailed preparatory sketches, made during his solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery in 2019, formed an important departure point for the project.

Located in Birmingham’s Civic Quarter, Foreign Exchange enhances the monument’s role as a place of discussion and celebration for the city and its visitors. Running alongside the project, the Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon are offering extensive public engagement and education programmes, including free creative learning activity packs for schools, guided tours, workshops and a school’s showcase celebrating artworks by pupils from local schools responding to Foreign Exchange. Locke will also take part in an In Conversation with curator and cultural historian, Gus Caseley-Hayford, at Birmingham Cathedral on 14 July.