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Behind the scenes of the 2021 Summer Exhibition

Published 29 September 2021

This year, Yinka Shonibare RA is putting marginalised voices at the heart of the Summer Exhibition. Here, Kadish Morris explores the vision and art for this year’s show.

  • Kadish Morris is an editor, poet and a critic at The Observer. Winner of the Eric Gregory Prize for poets under 30 in 2020, she also writes for publications including Frieze and Art Review.

    What does reclamation look like for people of African descent? To date, it’s the capitalisation of B in Black; the fight to return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria; Jamaica demanding reparations for slavery from Great Britain. When it comes to the British art canon, Black artists have been resisting Eurocentric ideas of art-making since the 1950s. The 253rd Summer Exhibition, co-ordinated by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare RA, will endeavour to reclaim further the walls of art history, and situate pan-African and non-academic artistic excellence at the epicentre of contemporary art.

  • My main aim is to give people possibilities and expand their field of vision.

    Yinka Shonibare RA

  • “My main aim is to give people possibilities and expand their field of vision,” says Shonibare, speaking of the many thousands of visitors to the Summer Exhibition each year. This means that inclusivity isn’t relegated to the footnotes encouraging ‘minorities’ to apply. Artists from the African diaspora will be brought from outside to inside, together with neurodiverse, disabled and self-taught artists. Over 50 notable artists of colour have been invited specifically by Shonibare to show work, while charities working with marginalised groups of artists have been asked to encourage submissions. Shonibare’s public call for entries made clear the RA’s intent to counter “the devaluing of art practices from other cultures”. As Shonibare points out: “With its position in Piccadilly, I can’t think of a better place to have those marginalised voices heard. It’s not about stopping other forms of expression. But I am diversifying the exhibition. I am doing that deliberately. Society has changed since the RA was founded.”

    It has. The Royal Academy was inaugurated in 1768, and that same year, the Betsey, a slave ship, set off from Liverpool and made eight voyages up until 1777, transporting hundreds of enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean. This fact makes it all the more significant that the exhibition will showcase a group of works by the self-taught artist Bill Traylor, who was an African-American artist born into slavery. “Traylor was born in 1853, and slavery was abolished in America in 1865,” says Shonibare. “He is now going to be central to the exhibition at the Royal Academy. That’s symbolic.”

  • Bill Traylor, 82 - RED MAN WITH PIPE

    Bill Traylor, 82 - RED MAN WITH PIPE, 2021.

    graphite and colour pencil on cardboard. 24 x 20 x 1 cm.

  • Traylor was born in 1853, and slavery was abolished in America in 1865. He is now going to be central to the exhibition at the Royal Academy. That’s symbolic.

    Yinka Shonibare RA

  • Traylor pencilled or painted scenes he saw onto scraps of cardboard: men in top hats, hobbled elderly women, elegant birds, wild dogs, men being chased to their lynching. His unique silhouetted style and colour palette of black, indigo and red give his images a remarkable fable-like quality.

    A decorative and geometric textile by the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers will also feature in the show (Sally Mae Pettway Mixon’s Sweep pictured below). They are a group of women quiltmakers descended from people enslaved by the Pettway cotton plantation in Boykin, Alabama. Their inclusion is important when you consider that in 1770 the Royal Academy established a rule that “no needlework, flowers, cut paper, shell-work or any such baubles shall be admitted”, thereby excluding crafts and, by association, women. The eminent African-American artist Faith Ringgold, famed for her quilts and paintings, is showing several works, while another spotlight is shone on the knitted sculptures of Marie-Rose Lortet, a French self-taught artist collected by Jean Dubuffet.

  • The vision of the show is fitting when you consider Shonibare’s own practice. His oeuvre is deeply concerned with cultural identity, post-colonialism and the knotted relationship between Africa and Europe. One of his best- known works, Scramble for Africa (2003), is an installation of 15 headless mannequins seated at a table. It parodies the European figureheads who joined the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 to discuss the partitioning of Africa and to divide its resources amicably.

    This year’s Summer Exhibition will similarly lean into the past, taking into account the Royal Academy’s legacy as a historically white institution, while seeking to create a new trajectory that rejects homogeneity and embraces diversity. “There is cultural parity between the European and African tradition – one is not superior to another,” says Shonibare. “We can engage with each other’s culture and expand our horizons.” A visual metaphor for this parity is the artist’s sculptural contribution to the show: Unintended Sculpture (Donatello’s David and Ife Head) (pictured below). A batik-patterned reproduction of the Renaissance statue’s body has as its head a replica of one of the Heads of Ife, masterpieces of Yoruba art that date to the same era as the Donatello.

  • Yinka Shonibare RA, 1292 - UNINTENDED SCULPTURE (DONATELLO'S DAVID AND IFE HEAD)

    Yinka Shonibare RA, 1292 - UNINTENDED SCULPTURE (DONATELLO'S DAVID AND IFE HEAD), 2021.

    fibreglass sculpture, hand-painted with dutch wax pattern, gold leaf, patinated bronze.

  • Shaking the table rather than just taking a seat at it is something Shonibare has been doing since he first exhibited at the Summer Exhibition in 2010. “I put up a provocative installation. It was basically a car-crash piece,” he says, reflecting on Crash Willy (2009), his response to the credit crunch: a headless driver collapsed inside a smashed-up bright red Victorian motor vehicle, with its ‘FTSE’ license plate. It won the Charles Wollaston Award – the prize for the best work submitted.

    This year around 14,000 works have been sent in by members of the public for consideration. Shonibare and his fellow Academicians on the selection committee – David Adjaye, Tony Bevan, Vanessa Jackson, Mali Morris, Humphrey Ocean, Eva Rothschild, Bob & Roberta Smith and Emma Stibbon – have managed to whittle down the pile of works to just 1,500. Adjaye is hanging the Architecture Room, which this year has an aural element: a soundscape by his brother, the musician and DJ Peter Adjaye. Other sound works are accessible online; visitors can listen to them on their smartphone headphones as they walk around the galleries. These works range across sonic disciplines, from a dub-poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson and a piano piece by Pelen Pelen to Sleepdust: Uber Drivers Singing Lullabies by Ceyda Oskay, an artist who explores migration and displacement .

  • Faith Ringgold, 73 - JAZZ STORIES: MAMA CAN SING #4

    Faith Ringgold, 73 - JAZZ STORIES: MAMA CAN SING #4, 2021.

    acrylic on paper. 49 x 34 x 1 cm.

  • So what does reclaiming look like for Shonibare? It’s all about the restoration of magic. The central theme of the show is taking new pride in non-Western ideas of enlightenment and reframing magic as something that isn’t dubious but empowering and visceral. “Within the art world, the notion of magic has been relegated as primitive and not seen as not critical or conceptual,” Shonibare explains. “It’s about empowerment. It’s saying, we have equally valuable forms of cultural expression. You might consider me exotic or magical. But it’s a position of strength.”

    He seeks to reclaim the energy and instinctive way of art-making that was co-opted by non-African artists in the early 20th century. “Picasso’s art transformed the whole conversation around what modern art could be – but African art informed that thinking, particularly tribal artefacts,” he explains. And the rise of this influence on European artists in the early 1900s, known as ‘Primitivism’, often led to the exaggeration and decontextualization of African art, culture and mysticism. Even late in the century, exhibitions such as “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984-85), at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were condemned as an act of erasure and an example of Western egotism.

  • The work of artists of colour very rarely reached the walls of the Summer Exhibition until the late 20th century, with notable exceptions, such as the paintings of Ishibashi Kazunori, a Japanese artist and RA Schools alumnus who showed regularly from 1909. Because Royal Academicians are able to submit up to six works for consideration, depending on the dimensions, having a larger pool of non-white Members is one way of ensuring the exhibition better represents the demographics of the country’s artists. It is up to current Academicians to nominate and elect new Academicians. “There are many more Black members than when I started,” explains Shonibare, who was elected in 2013. “Then it was just me and Frank Bowling. Now we have Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, John Akomfrah, David Adjaye, Isaac Julien. I’m not claiming I single-handedly brought these people in, but I very much supported their nominations.” A room this year is dedicated to Akomfrah’s 2012 film Peripeteia, which visualises the lives of a Black man and woman who appear in the drawings of Albrecht Dürer. In last year’s Summer Exhibition, both Boyce and Julien curated rooms in the show, with many of their chosen works by artists of colour.

    For Himid and Akomfrah, major acclaim has arrived only in the past five years, with Himid winning the Turner Prize in 2017, and Akomfrah the Artes Mundi Prize the same year. But both artists were instrumental figures not only in terms of their art production, but also in giving Black art a platform in the 1980s, Akomfrah through his involvement in the Black Audio Film Collective and Himid through her curation of shows dedicated to young Black and Asian women artists. Though Black artists’ collective organising can be traced back to a cold December evening in 1966, where a group of West Indian artists, writers and intellectuals met in a basement flat in London’s Mecklenburgh Square and formed the Caribbean Artists Movement, it was not until the 1980s that the most significant impact on contemporary British art occurred, in the aftermath of the Brixton riots.

  • Everyone at the RA, from the selection committee to the installation team, has worked tirelessly to put together a show that will be as visually transcending as it is historically trailblazing. From Basil Kincaid’s wall-based patchwork sculpture using US bank notes and cloth (Retired Drug Dealer, pictured below) to Raúl de Nieves’ humanoid figure encrusted with brightly coloured gems, beads and feathers (I Woke Up From a Dream that Gave me Wings), to Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s verdant collage of commemorative fabric, acrylic and photographs (Cassava Garden), to a painting by Simphiwe Ndzube that morphs into a standing sculpture (Seekers of Light): a cosmic, revelatory show awaits. I don’t want anyone to think this is just a political project,“ concludes Shonibare. “It’s about art. I know that the audience will value the expressions and the magical aspects of all these artists.”

    Summer Exhibition 2021 takes place in the Main Galleries and runs until 2 Jan 2022.

    Browse and buy works online: https://se.royalacademy.org.uk/

    From the Summer 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

  • Basil Kincaid, 439 - RETIRED DRUG DEALER

    Basil Kincaid, 439 - RETIRED DRUG DEALER, 2021.

    US currency, weavings made from photographs taken by the artist, wash cloths, cotton thread on canvas.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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