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.
Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoumè, who lives in Porto-Novo, Benin, agrees that art has lost its magic.
"It’s not that magic doesn’t exist, it’s that it has been
lost to the contemporary art world. One of the reasons I continue to live in Africa is because that’s where my magic is,” he says. “Artists from the outside began to come into the field of view of the contemporary art world with the important show ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ at the Pompidou [in Paris in 1989]. Part of the problem however is that, when those artists were brought into the Western art canon, they found themselves imitating and using ideas and tropes from that world. That has had a destructive effect on the way their art has developed.”
Hazoumè’s practice stays closely connected to his heritage. He uses found objects, such as plastic petrol cans, paintbrushes and feathers, to make masks with ceremonial and symbolic importance. His petrol-can mask Passe temps will be on view at the Summer Exhibition. “The masks are portraits of people, rather than objects on walls. Someone I know, someone I’ve seen, someone I remember.”
Jade Montserrat, an artist based in Scarborough, is contributing a small watercolour entitled Entered her Room. The work depicts a grassy hill before a dark blue night sky glittering with white and yellow stars. This hill is a recurring motif in Monsterrat’s work, representing both the rural house in which she grew up – it faced a hill in the North York Moors National Park – and an afro hairstyle. Here the hill is topped by tree guards protecting saplings; the work’s title, which appears in white text at the top right, is taken from a line in the short story Busy Lines, by Māori writer Patricia Grace.
When it comes to the RA show’s theme of magic, Montserrat says she wants to reclaim the idea of being a witch. “I want to know more about healing, our bodies, our powers that are inexplicable and unexplained, and to unite around that,” she says. “I’m happy to be in the exhibition, and that the work is for sale. I rely on being visible. The arts and humanities are being cut by the Government, so as artists, me and my peers are constantly having to legitimise our existence. I need the Royal Academy to legitimise me, though it shouldn’t have to be that way.”