The Daily Telegraph
Shonibare adds life to the RA’S tiresome show
Summer Exhibition 2021 Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 ★★★★☆
Sometimes, I wonder if there’s a circle of hell reserved for sinning art critics: a chilling waste with nothing to review but the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, that mad, motley mash-up of amateurs and professionals without curatorial rhyme or reason. The years come and go, yet this peculiar show, as indestructible as a cockroach, always feels the same, groaning with banal, random pictures of flowers, gardens, animals, and a smattering of antiquated Venetian views. The fact that it still endures drives many critics to despair – including my colleague Cal Revely-calder, who argued on these pages last year that it was time to put it out of its misery. No such luck.
Yet, as the exhibition celebrates its 253rd birthday, shunted to autumn for the second year running because of the pandemic, things, at least, feel slightly different.
Every Summer Exhibition has a “co-ordinator”, appointed from the ranks of the RA’S artist-members, known as Academicians. Typically, this poor soul can do little to imprint any vision upon the inchoate mass of entries submitted by the public – more than 15,000, this time – which get whittled down to around 1,200 artworks. Yet, 2021’s co-ordinator, the British-nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, pulls off the Promethean feat of imposing order – because he has something to say.
A short wall text in the opening gallery outlines his manifesto: this year’s exhibition, “Reclaiming Magic”, is about “restoring value” to “marginalised practices”, and championing “previously invisible voices”. To illustrate his point, he presents, against a blood-red wall, a row of historical pieces featuring spindly silhouetted figures by the self-taught African-american artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949), who was born into slavery.
Elsewhere, one of Shonibare’s own fibreglass sculptures, available for £257,160, provides an emblematic figurehead for his approach: a pastiche of Donatello’s David, painted with a bright pink batik fabric pattern, and surmounted with a replica of the British Museum’s Ife Head, it is an icon for the cultural moment we are living through, a day of reckoning for the Western tradition.
Yes, there are pictures with trite titles like Almost Spring and Sunny Days. Of course, you find workaday tributes to that national hero of the pandemic, Captain Tom Moore. Inevitably, some pieces reflect internal politicking: Ron Arad’s witty Tondino 2020, a miniature marble replica of the Royal Academy’s treasure by Michelangelo, the so-called Taddei Tondo, which, last year, several scurrilous Academicians anonymously suggested should be sold to raise funds, is inscribed with the words “Not for Sale”.
But look around. Are those bones hanging from the Stars and Stripes? The legacy of slavery is evoked on every side. British sculptor Hew Locke suggests how he would deal with the toppled statue of Edward Colston: drape it with chains and colourful cloth. John Akomfrah’s
Peripeteia (2012), a melancholic video work about the African diaspora, gets an entire room. And, for the first time in the exhibition’s history, an accompanying “sound programme” has been commissioned. It includes a reading, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Brixton “uprising”, by the Jamaican dub poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson. His poem’s title? Di Great Insohreckshan.
This, then, is a takeover. And you know what? It’s refreshing to find the Summer Exhibition so full of fighting spirit.
From Sept 22. Details: 020 7300 8090; royalacademy.org.uk