Artist Yinka Shonibare curates a vibrant, magical and moving Summer Exhibition, one where a multiplicity of voices and artistic perspectives speak to the pain and progress of both past and present, writes Emily Walters.
For Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA), art is instinctual alchemy. Born in London in 1962, he moved to Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of three, then later returned to the UK to pursue his creative career. During his studies, a tutor unwittingly impacted the trajectory of his work by questioning his apparent refusal to produce ‘authentic African’ compositions. Sardonic yet playful interrogations of cultural identity, colonialism and authenticity have pulsated through his installations, paintings and films ever since. And so, as the coordinator of this year’s belated Summer Exhibition at the RA, he has sought to imbue the walls of Burlington House with inclusivity. For Shonibare, such a disruption of tradition can only be effectuated through his chosen theme: the reclamation of magic.
Reclaiming the magic of art necessitates the redistribution of power. It entails confronting and unravelling the marginalisation of othered and exoticised artists. Overlooked media and processes historically deemed frivolous are to be celebrated anew. Triumphantly, Shonibare’s curation of the show accordingly foregrounds the transcendence of constricting Western art historical ideals. Far from being dubious or sinister, he reframes the magical as a source of visceral and empowering joy.
Yet despite the RA’s founding principles of access and democracy, alongside the fact of the Summer Exhibition being the world’s oldest open-submission show, something feels uncomfortably discordant about ‘inclusivity’, ‘royal’ and ‘academy’ in the same sentence. Crucially, the institution was established in 1768 during Britain’s most lucrative involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The Royal Academy schools separated artists by gender and denied female artists access to life models in their drawing classes. Certain media, notably needlework and paper craft, were prohibited from the exhibition in 1770 due to a misguided perception of their inherent mediocrity. So why would Shonibare choose the RA as the stage on which to restore respect and admiration for a diverse array of voices, experiences and artistic perspectives?
His motivations appear two-fold. On the one hand, the potential for decisive, historical restitution; on the other, his surprising proclivity to operate inside of the establishments he seeks to disrupt and challenge. Perceiving himself as a ‘rebel within’, Shonibare accepted the title of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire so as to encapsulate his seemingly paradoxical desires – both to comply with and protest against the strictures of the British cultural sphere. Believing that to have denounced the honour would have conveniently perpetuated the status quo, the artist insists on the initialism ironically and defiantly rounding off his full name.
As such, it is with a characteristically sharp-witted twist that visitors to the Summer Exhibition will first lay eyes on the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the RA, as they may never have seen it before. This year, a vibrant sash of golden batik slices through the bronze. This wax fabric has become Shonibare’s signature: while he purchases this ‘African’ material in London, it was originally of Indonesian design, produced en masse by the Dutch and then sold to West African colonies. Ultimately, he foregrounds batik to embody transnational hybridity, question notions of authenticity and narrate the reverberations of empire.
Shonibare’s disruption of expectations continues inside, as he opens the exhibition – hitherto a showcase of the most exciting contemporary art – with the startling, earthy drawings of African-American artist Bill Traylor, who died in 1949. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama, lived through war, segregation, migration and only began painting in his late eighties while living on the streets of Montgomery. His pictographic creations are distinctly figurative and spare, foregrounding self-definition and invention in the wake of a truly tumultuous period of history. The inclusion of such an artist is a dramatic anomaly, given that the RA would usually only welcome living artists whose work is no less than five years old. Shonibare thus emerges as a curator who reaches into the past in order to metabolise the present. He reminds us that we are all mere aftershocks of our history.
Despite incorporating almost 1,400 artworks split between 14 rooms, with many of these spaces displaying the curatorial choices of other artists including Humphrey Ocean RA, Bob and Roberta Smith RA and Mali Morris RA, the show encompasses an impressively unified vision. Anchored in Shonibare’s dedication to Bill Traylor, themes of leaning into the past, confronting the trauma of the present, celebrating the magic of making and championing marginalised voices abound.
Equally, there is a joyous exuberance to the multiplicity of materials found in this year’s exhibition, along with a decisive condemnation of the restrictions imposed by the Academy in the eighteenth century. Whilst embroidery, quilts, sculptures produced from beads, felt, sequins and rope create a playful, textural landscape, Shonibare has expanded the scope of the show even further by incorporating sound-specific works from artists and collectives like Pelin Pelin and the Black Obsidian Sound System. These spoken word poems, compositions and abstract sound-scapes reflect on visceral, aural creation, thematically spanning everything from Ugandan dance music to sleepy, singing London Uber drivers.
Evoking magical reimagining in the vibrant patchwork THINK WE MUST, Sylvie Franquet unpicks, repairs and re-stitches found needlepoints based on Fragonard’s The Young Girl Reading (1769). The resulting fusion of graffiti and embroidery disrupts and reclaims the romanticised domesticity of Fragonard’s serene, rococo idyll. While in the original painting, the title of the book delicately placed in the subject’s hands remains obscured, Franquet’s iterations see her consuming everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Sister Outsider and The Vagina Monologues. If Fragonard’s work is praised for the delicacy of the brushstrokes and the warmth of the carefully-selected colour palette, Franquet undermines this idealisation, incorporating the reverse of the tapestry to expose the imperfect threads expected to be concealed underneath. This subversive approach to needlepoint unravels the expectations of a medium perceived as quiet, demure and domesticated. Equally, the artist’s time-intensive, meticulous process of embroidering a collaged story figures as a rejection of our fast-paced, capitalist-driven world. Up close, the grid of stitches resembles a textural form of digital pixelation, thematising the evolution of image-production alongside processes of reality-altering retouching and airbrushing. As such, through the transformative magic of needlework, Franquet’s Think We Must questions art history, asking why certain works become canonised and others do not; interrogating the constricting gaze that has monopolised the visual depiction of young women.
True to Shonibare’s intentions, this year’s Summer Exhibition eclipses homogeneity at every turn. Alongside pieces by acclaimed household names, such as Tracey Emin’s affecting, monochrome ink paintings addressing motherhood, rising stars emerge, like Ofunne Azinge who graduated from Leeds University this summer. Azinge is a Nigerian-British artist whose distinctive style fuses figures painted in hues of black, blue and purple with textural variety created by collaging scanned images onto wood. Shaped by her upbringing, her work often focuses on black masculinity, particularly examining the continual impact of colonialism on black men across the diaspora. In an unprecedented move, Azinge’s large-scale painting IJE EGO DI OLU (TO LOOK FOR MONEY IS HARD) opens the RA’s show outside of the main exhibition space, offering a carnival of textures and patterns that frame a captivating subject adorned in a brilliantly decorated suit. Whilst intriguing details in the background (like beer bottles, sepia-faded photographs and a bulky, old-fashioned television) imbue the composition with a sense of nostalgia, the appearance of the Nigerian presidential seal on the screen both contextualises the setting and evokes the power structures of the outside world intruding on private domesticity. As the subject appears at once familiar and elusive, the work straddles intimacy and mystery, peeling back layers of memory to reflect on the weight yielded from the past onto the present.
From Sliz Gillard’s transformation of much-loved British brands into felted sculptures confronting hunger and poverty (FELT FOOD), to the wired lungs of Jennifer Vorhaus’ harrowing piece (I CAN’T BREATHE), to Hew Locke’s multi-layered evocation of the infamous Edward Colston statue in flamboyant chains (COLSTON DAY 1): this magical display refuses to cower away from trauma. Instead, the rallying cry declared by author Toni Cade Bambara is unequivocally enacted: it is the role of the artist to make the revolution irresistible; to think beyond their time.
A lazy criticism all too often levelled at the Royal Academy is that the Summer Exhibition is much too large. But what if such abundance is what it takes to replace homogeneity with compassion and genuine inclusivity? Through the lens of reclaiming magic, the curatorial focus on polyphony engenders empowerment, deconstructs inequality and attests to the infinitely galvanising potential of art and creativity. Specifically, in the final room of the exhibition, Shonibare has encapsulated the show’s crucial blend of solace and celebration. Whilst Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s painting of Congolese women whose skin is constructed from electronic circuits draws devastating attention to the exploitative trade of coltan used to produce mobile phones, Raúl de Nieves’ psychedelic fusion of beads, feathers and sequins into a fantastical, hybrid creature extols the vibrancy of queer club culture. It is a juxtaposition that at once inspires awe and instills an urgent need to rewrite the structures of our world with justice and kindness. In a time of fractured precarity, this exhibition forges connections; encouraging us to step into the shoes of those who have walked paths differing greatly from our own. It demonstrates the capacity of art to act as an antidote to chaos, providing new languages, new ways of seeing and reflecting, and offering a route towards something truly magical.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, curated by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA), will be showing until 2 January 2022. Click the link to book tickets and for more information.
Feature image: Gallery view the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition 2021. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts.