With a strong focus on showcasing the artists of today and unearthing new talent within the field, the 249th edition of The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is praised as one of the most diverse and inclusive shows ever organised by the institution. This annual event is known as the world’s largest open submission art exhibition. Heading up this year’s selection committee is Keeper of the Academy, Eileen Cooper; RA graduate, painter, printmaker and past Summer Exhibition participant. Other committee members include Academicians such as Ann Christopher, Gus Cummins, Bill Jacklin, Farshid Moussavi, Fiona Rae, Rebecca Salter and Yinka Shonibare MBE. The committee selected 1,200 works out of an impressive pile of about 12,000 submissions with applicants ranging from established to amateur artists, all hoping for a spot on the Academy’s coveted walls.
YINKA SHONIBARE MBE'S WIND SCULPTURE VI IN THE COURTYARD OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY, SUMMER 2017. PHOTO: DAVID PARRY.
Contemporary African Art has a strong presence at this year's Summer Exhibition thanks to leading British-Nigerian artist and curator Yinka Shonibare MBE, whose work, Crash Willy, was sold for a record breaking £224,750 at Sotheby's inaugural sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in May 2017. Influenced by his British-Nigerian dual heritage, Shonibare's work and indeed his curatorial effort at the Summer Exhibition explore questions of cultural hybridity and the genesis of national identity. Shonibare fosters a remarkable space wherein each selected work can be appreciated individually for the artists’ personal exploration, whilst conveying a narrative that tells a larger collective story.
Upon entering the courtyard of the Royal Academy, visitors are greeted by Shonibare's Wind Sculpture VI — a taste of what can be found inside. Using the artist's trademark Dutch wax-printed fabric, Wind Sculpture VI captures a frozen moment in time: drawing attention to the act of a piece of cloth, or a sail, blowing in the wind. This is reminiscent of Shonibare's previous installation Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which was selected to adorn Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth from 2010-2012. The artist has a further four works in the exhibition, including Venus De'Medici. The figure, covered in African textile patterns with a globe head, is a nod to the international focus of the artist's curated space.
INSTALLATION VIEW OF YINKA SHONIBARE MBE'S VENUS DE’ MEDICI IN THE ROYAL ACADEMY GALLERIES.
Shonibare brings a global profile to the summer show, highlighting the diversity of the world we live in by selecting artists from across the world and works spanning across a wide variety of media. Whilst Shonibare by no means restricts himself to contemporary works from Africa, there is a noticeable presence of works from the continent and the diaspora both within his curated room and also throughout the exhibition. Pieces by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Romuald Hazoumè and Abdoulaye Konaté are amongst the first that guests see upon entering the Academy.
NAOMI WANJIKU GAKUNGA, MŪGOGO - THE CROSSING. © NAOMI WANJIKU GAKUNGA.
Shonibare also manages to successfully balance superstars and lesser known names from Africa and the diaspora. For example, a shimmering metallic tapestry by renowned contemporary Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui, or a mixed media work by New York-based Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu, hangs alongside works by younger voices, such as an acrylic and oil painting by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga from the DRC and a mixed media work by Nigeria’s Modupeola Fadugba. Furthermore, Shonibare provides an opportunity for contemporary artists from Africa to take their rightful place amongst their international contemporaries, exhibiting next to artists such as Tracey Emin from the UK and Tomoaki Suzuki from Japan.
From Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga’s oxidised cans to Gonçalo Mabunda’s machine gun chairs to Hassan Hajjaj’s vibrant frame made out of local Moroccan cans, Yinka Shonibare MBE pointedly celebrates craft and the use of, sometimes unorthodox, material. He highlights the diversity of his selections not only through their broad geographic origins but also through their artistry, delivering a vibrant and truly diverse contribution to the 2017 Summer Exhibition.
Some highlights from the exhibition:
Hassan Hajjaj Henna Bikers
Inspired by the motorcycle culture of Marrakesh, Hassan Hajjaj presents Henna Bikers from his photographic series, Kesh Angels; a response to a photoshoot that the artist worked on in the early 1990s where absolutely nothing about the shoot was Moroccan. With the aim of presenting Moroccan female subjects within unexpected situations, Henna Bikers is at once a clear nod to traditional Moroccan culture (amplified through the repetition of found Moroccan objects within the pictorial frame to evoke traditional mosaic patterns) and an exploration of what it means to be a woman in contemporary Morocco. Hajjaj explores the identity of these 'henna bikers', whom he identifies as the women who paint henna tattoos on Morocco’s tourists as well as his close friends. These women bulldoze any preconceived idea of Moroccan femininity today. Speaking multiple languages and working long hours in order to support their families, they are powerful and ‘badass’ motorcyclists who are challenging the way in which they are most commonly viewed and showcasing the cosmopolitan city that is Marrakech.
HASSAN HAJJAJ, HENNA BIKERS. © HASSAN HAJJAJ.
Abe Odedina Deep Cut
Similar to Yinka Shonibare MBE, architect turned artist, Abe Odedina, was born in Nigeria and raised in the UK. The artist began painting after being exposed to the popular arts of Bahia and the voodoo arts of Haiti, a lasting influence that can be seen through the depiction of Afro-Caribbean goddesses or other hybrid mythical creatures within his works. Incorporating strong motifs and powerful symbols — the artist's rendering of the crisp Union Jack is incredibly eye catching within Shonibare’s space — Odedina's highly stylised figural works depict a spiritual and expressive world, telling the stories of the people who live in it. When speaking about Deep Cut, a work that was influenced by the recent Brexit vote in the UK, Odedina says: "the very strong graphic representation of the flag itself seems to suggest cut lines - in a way it is a gentle warning that we are dealing with powerful forces." Odedina cleverly highlights the strong and polarising cultural tenets that create both tension and a beckoning cultural hybridity within our society.
ABE ODEDINA, DEEP CUT, 2016. © ABE ODEDINA.
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga Ce n’est pas le champ qui nourrit c'est la culture
Young artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga is amongst several other emerging talents chosen to participate in this year’s show. Born in the bustling city of Kinshasa and troubled by its rapid post-colonial modernisation, Kamuanga Ilunga combines his signature depictions of women with digital tattooing on their bodies — a reference to the DRC's mining of Coltan, a metallic ore often used in the production of cell phones and other digital gadgets — with traditional Congolese objects. Commenting on the effects of industrialisation on indigenous communities throughout the DRC, Ce n’est pas le champ qui nourrit c’est la culture expresses clearly, through subject matter and title, that the source of true nourishment and fulfilment in life is derived from our culture and our heritage. The artist made his auction debut in Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary African Art Sale in May and continues to garner much international acclaim.
EDDY KAMUANGA ILUNGA, CE N'EST PAS LE CHAMP QUI NOURRIT C'EST LA CULTURE. © EDDY KAMUANGA ILUNGA.