Nave (as in a church) has as its root the Medieval Latin word for ship, “navis.” The etymology cues a tradition dating back to at least the fifteenth century: Survivors of shipwrecks and captains prosperous at sea would donate miniature models of boats to churches. Hung from the eaves of European—particularly Scandinavian—cathedrals, these votive boats were a form of thanks but also prayer. They’ve inspired art before, Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio’s “The Apparition of the Ten Thousand Martyrs,” for one. British artist Hew Locke didn’t know of the boats until encountering them in a Portuguese fisherman’s chapel in 2009. Ships had long been in his visual vocabulary, but in that sacred setting he saw them anew: In constellation, in the context of journeys so difficult they require either pleas or gratitude to the gods.
That lens illuminates his work, most recently with the flotilla of thirty-five boats that hang from the ceiling at Manhattan’s Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art gallery. Cruise ships, gold-filigreed galleons, a Coast Guard boat, a dugout canoe, and sailboats all careen together in suspended motion, in an installation consecrated to refugees from Syria and Iraq. Locke christened it “The Wine Dark Sea” in homage to Homer’s “Odyssey” but also to Derek Walcott’s epic poem “Omeros,” which recasts the ancient Greek tale in the Antilles. The title “bends together two seas,” Locke tells me—the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, both scenes of precarious migrant crossings.
His makeshift barge curtained with doll’s clothes, inspired by a Coast Guard photo of a Cuban refugee boat, also holds as cargo an old Iraqi Army badge to allude to the more recent crisis. Secreted inside or painted on hulls, totems gather from boat to boat as refrain, as excess imagery: UN and NATO coins, burlap sacks known in Africa as migrant’s bags, fisherman’s nets, outlines of skulls, metallic cutouts of gunmen. The last hint at “what people are running from.” Vine-like plastic flowers evoke altars.
“It’s a votive thing, almost a protective device,” Locke says.
Locke’s memories of his first boat journey are impressionistic: He remembers himself dressed up as a character from the Beatrix Potter books. He remembers sulking when he lost the costume contest on board to some Beatles pretenders. He was only five. It was 1966, the year of independence in Guyana, his home country and mine.
Locke was born in Edinburgh, where his father, sculptor Donald Locke, was getting his MFA. At the time, when flights weren’t everyman excursions, to migrate was to know boats. Donald Locke had arrived in England by one, during the period that saw the first significant Caribbean immigration to Britain. The era itself was named after a boat: the Windrush, the retired cruise ship that brought the first arrivals, 492 Jamaicans, many of whom were ex-RAF fighters, to the imperial metropolis in 1948. By the time hostility against newcomers crested two decades later, with the nativist Enoch Powell threatening a “river of blood,” Hew had made his “fancy dress” passage across the Atlantic to Guyana.
The name of the country we share translates as “land of many waters.” During his years there, the muddy ocean tides, three mighty rivers, innumerable sweet-water creeks, and the unending canals that cut through the plantations all fulfilled their chances for ships: ferries, pontoons carrying cane, fishing skiffs, ocean liners—and the toy boats that Hew would float in gutters running through his neighborhood in the Guyanese capital. Boats take him to a nostalgist’s country: Suddenly he can smell the grease on the anchor ropes of the inland ferries he rode as a boy.
Family holidays were spent in the South American nation’s remote interior, its otherworldly forests and mountains muse for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Sir Walter Raleigh’s fevered dreamland of gold, an El Dorado unreachable except by boat. Locke recalls traveling home from one jaunt on a boat transporting caged tropical birds for commercial export. The boatmen would occasionally throw a dead parrot or songbird overboard. Even on childhood pleasure trips, boats offered him intimations of mortality and abridged freedom.
Locke made his first boat at art school in an English port town in the 1980s. It was a simple wooden model three feet long by three feet high, with a papier-mâché slave figure atop the mast, pointing. Aboard, bits of wood painted with faces represented dead slaves.
Since then, he tells me, “I would make a boat every two years.” The impulse goes deeper than the psyche of a son of the Atlantic slave trade, or even of a migrant or artist, to a basic humanity. We feel for boats in a way we don’t for planes. “Boats,” Locke says, “are much closer to our hearts in a way, in carrying people around for thousands of years.”
I tell him of their mythic place in my own imagination, in my history of indentured Indians shipped to West Indian plantations to replace freed Africans. I spin my creation story for him: Indo-Caribbeans as a people began on the seas. What was prologue? Where was? Like time and space before the Big Bang, it’s unfathomable. No place of return; in our beginning, only a boat. // This summons for Locke a memory of a trip to Guyana thirty years ago. Along Georgetown’s seawall, he found Rastafarian friends building a boat to take them to Africa. “I remember thinking it looked scary,” he says. “It was well built for a river, but to go across the Atlantic Ocean—that was insane.”
“The physical object embodied a hope?” I ask.
“The physical object was for them a very serious idea: You have to go back to Africa. It was more of a dream than a hope.”
That boat never did go to Africa but Locke couldn’t forget it. The faith in escape, a reminder that boats mean life as much as death, inspired a boat in the Manhattan exhibit, one bright with Rastafarian colors.
There are no slave ships in the exhibit. Only one boat, a canoe Locke bought on eBay, suggests the Middle Passage. On its hull, he painted the famous sculpture of a soldier in bronze, given by Portugal to its African trading partners, the Benin kings who sold slaves for brass and arms. On the hull, the soldier repeats itself, in imitation of the iconic diagram of slaves stacked claustrophobically side by side as cargo.
A gauzy white fabric covers the last ship that Locke made for “The Wine Dark Sea,” an 18th century French galleon that sits on a plinth, separate from the flotilla. In black thread, he has sewn ghastly figures into the cloth: dancing skeletons, a macabre angel, gunmen, a zemi (an indigenous Caribbean ancestral spirit). Locke tells me it’s a ghost ship, interlaying past and present, like much of his work.
It reminds me of another boat burdened by history: the Sun Chapman, a launch that sank in an explosion near a downriver mining town in Guyana in 1964, on the eve of independence, a time of haunting racial violence between the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured. Locke, who arrived in Guyana as it became free, says watching a country being born deeply affected his work. He’s intrigued by “visual expressions of nationhood and power,” such as queens’ heads, flags, coats of arms and currency designs. Coins are tucked inside boats throughout the installation. Locke had not, however, heard of the Sun Chapman.
Forty-three people, all black, died during its explosion. It took place soon after a campaign of arson, murder, and rape that forced most of the town’s Indians to flee. (Several were killed.) The sinking was rumored retaliation. Growing up, I had heard of the ethnic cleansing. I had not heard of the Sun Chapman until I visited a museum in the mining town last year. The ship was memorialized there. The exodus of Indians was not. Traumatic histories are repressed ones, selectively remembered.
Had he known about the Sun Chapman, Locke would not have used it. It’s a painful symbol of continuing animosity. We walk past a gray barge in the installation. Heaped inside are gold-colored WWII battleships, which it’s carrying away, elegiacally enacting the loss of a golden era. Nearby lies an upside-down boat with skeletons painted on the underside, hung below an oil tanker. “This is what lies beneath, the wreckage of the past,” Locke says.
We’re all in the same boat. The cliché to express solidarity is nautical. As Locke puts it, “all your GPS in the world is not going to save you if a storm kicks in.”
For both artist and migrant, ships are symbols of the universal. A slave, an indentured servant, a tourist, a seaman, a refugee obviously each inhabit a ship distinctly, but aboard, each is ultimately at the mercy of the sea. I share Locke’s instinct for seeking comrades in the hull’s curve. In my own work, I present indenture voyages and slave journeys in parallel.
I tell Locke of an electrochemical moment at a recent reading in New York. In 1914, 376 Punjabis were virtually imprisoned for two months on the steamship Komagata Maru, docked in Vancouver, because of racist exclusion laws. In 1781, the crew of the Zong threw 133 slaves overboard; the owner said there wasn’t enough water for all and, then, claimed the insurance for each. Poets Phinder Dulai and NourbeSe Philip gave breath and resurrection to those stories side by side at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. They even swapped words. Philip spoke Dulai’s (“dream arteries surge seaward / pistons beat, engines screech”) and he spoke hers (“negroes want water / overboard/”).
Locke tells me the Zong has haunted him, too. He carved it, as part of a sculpture in England to celebrate the Magna Carta. Despite the tragedies of empire and bondage allied with boats, Locke tells me—he almost confesses—that he works with them because he finds them elegant, as aesthetically pleasing as any muse. “I was trying to make a beautiful object, really,” he explains. “The boats aren’t dark things. The subject matter may be tricky but the boat itself is a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t be working with these if I didn’t find them attractive.”
Their stories, he insists, are of life as much as death. “These are things of safety,” he says. “The life source is not necessarily land but another bigger boat coming to save you.”
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.