News Editor Ellen Knight write about the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021, calling attention to certain artists whose pieces were striking and memorable
On the face of it, the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition should be one of the most inclusive and diverse galleries in the world. Since the annual exhibition began in 1769, any artist (literally anyone) is permitted to submit up to six works for consideration in the hopes that they’ll be displayed. Royal Academicians – the name given to that group permitted to put the prestigious ‘RA’ after their names – are a rather more exclusive bunch; self-selecting, the Royal Academy can only ever number around eighty artists, from painters to printmakers.
As the Royal Academy Magazine’s editor, Sam Phillips, notes, ‘in practice, the [Summer Exhibition] is shaped by the taste of the selection committee each year – and most of the time, that taste has privileged the Western academic tradition.’ However, this year’s Summer Exhibition – running this autumn and winter from September 22nd until January 2nd despite COVID-19’s best efforts to cancel it for the second year in a row – hopes to make a change.
This year’s co-ordinator is British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, RA – a highly decorated artist whose work explores colonialism and cultural identity, often using his hallmark of brightly-coloured Ankara fabric. His piece Modern Magic (Studies of African Art from Picasso’s Collection) X is a stunning example of his work, and is one of the many highlights of the Exhibition.
Speaking to the RA Magazine, Shonibare expressed his hopes that this year’s Summer Exhibition will ‘situate pan-African, as well as non-academic artistic excellence in the heart of a British cultural institution,’ specifying ‘self-taught artists, artists with disabilities, artists from the African diaspora, and also artists trained in the Western tradition but who work in a more visceral manner.’
Niyi Olagunju’s art is a fantastic example of this vision; his Afrofuturist sculpture Baby Baga #1, is a striking combination of a Nimba mask, based on those made by the Baga people of Guinea coast, with the other half of the sculpture a cast in chrome-plated aluminium. Like every piece on display, Olagunju’s work immediately catches the eye – but this sculpture in particular captures the mould-breaking ideals that prove that Shonibare’s vision for this year has been enacted.
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux (directly translated, ‘forget the past and you lose both eyes’) also left a lasting impact when I visited the Exhibition. Kamauanga Ilunga’s work sets out to ‘explore the seismic shifts in the economic, political, and social identity of the [Democratic Republic of Congo] since colonialism.’ He explains that his work is fuelled by a feeling that many people in the DRC are ‘rejecting its heritage.’ His most recent work, inspired by the rich history of the Kongo Kingdom, sees the subjects’ bright clothing and ritual objects juxtaposed by a sense of weariness in their demeanour, illustrative of this detachment from heritage that Kamuanga Ilunga seeks to explore.
Moreover, amongst the traditional Congolese imagery, the artist has included Portuguese objects, such as Toby jugs, which eventually entered the Kongo Kingdom via trade routes used for the trading of slaves. In this way, Kamuanga Ilunga ‘pays tribute to the slaves and ancestors who resisted this human trafficking by presenting a vision of the socio-political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo.’
It’s pieces like Baby Baga #1 and Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux that really encapsulate what the Summer Exhibition is – and should be – all about. The Royal Academy – and thus the Summer Exhibition – is located at Burlington House, in Mayfair, London. Previously owned by the Earls of Burlington, the Palladian mansion was bought by the British Government in the mid-nineteenth century and it is within these imposing rooms that the Summer Exhibition is held.
The contrast between the modern art – and by modern, I mean created-this-century-modern, in most cases, not Picasso-modern – and the somewhat archaic, pastel walls of Burlington House is utterly striking. This ‘British cultural institution’, as Shonibare described it, could all too easily have become a symbol of that British-Empire-hangover, Western colonial obsession with putting the same few Caucasian male artists on pedestal after pedestal – but it isn’t. The walls of Burlington House are covered in the works of artists whose names might not yet be household ones – but watch this space.
Visit the online catalogue of the works displayed here.
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