Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017: surveying a sea of talent
By James Brewer
One of the curators speaks of being confronted “by an almost overwhelming sea of works.” Truly the staging of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is a tour de force. The panel of experts for the hanging process was faced with 12,500 submissions, from which they chose 2,500, and finally settled on 1,100 for the 2017 show which continues until August 20.
Co-ordinated by the Royal Academician, Eileen Cooper, the massive exercise has this time resulted in a more settled, calmer atmosphere than in some previous, frenetic, years. She and her colleagues have achieved this by extending the reach to include more works from overseas and from people working in differing media, “exploring and celebrating the new energy of the next generation,” and giving the impression of a less flustered hang.
In the simultaneous geographical expansion and winnowing of hopefuls, themes emerge, strikingly a celebration of African artists, and realisation of that continent’s starker side, even to the bombs and bullets of dictators, and the plight of refugees struggling to flee across the Mediterranean.
Digital communication is now the channel for artists who want to participate in the world’s largest open submission exhibition. About the huge total of entries, Edith Devaney, head of summer exhibitions at the Academy, said: “We had to cap the numbers because it is physically impossible to look at more than that.”
Another curator said during a tour of the wall-to-wall extravaganza: “There are a lot of conflicting [artistic] languages in all these rooms.” Despite this, there will be a strong sense that the dialogue, or should that be multilogue, succeeds.
The strong Africa element starts in the Royal Academy’s Annenberg Courtyard. The academician Yinka Shonibare has set up a colourful 6 m high sculpture which “explores the notion of harnessing motion and freezing it in a moment of time.” It is named Wind Sculpture VI and has the appearance of a three-dimensional piece of batik fabric being blown about. Echoing his favoured Dutch wax textiles, it is of steel armature with hand-painted fibreglass resin cast.
In London Yinka Shonibare, who is an MBE, buys fabric inspired by the Indonesian design items mass-produced by the Dutch and later sold in West Africa – in the 1960s the material was adopted as a sign of African identity. The artist was born in the UK capital and moved to Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of three, returning later to Britain to study fine art.
Inside the exhibition halls, Yinka Shonibare shows a fibreglass sculpture hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, with the title Venus de’ Medici. Add to this Ballet Africa a screenprint with glaze on hand-deckled Somerset Tub Sized paper. He was a member of the hanging committee, too.
The most striking piece as the visitor enters the building in the Central Hall is a poignant thrust at the continuing dominant role of oil in global trade, and at the political situation of Nigeria and Benin. Entitled Petrol Cargo, it comprises a rusty old motorcycle ferrying by long pole a set of jerry cans. Its creator is Romuald Hazoumè who was born in Porto Novo, Benin. The ensemble is a lament for the Beninese men who have to ferry contraband petrol from the neighbouring country to the fuel-starved smaller nation. It has been asserted that 90% of all fuel used in Benin passes through these black-market channels known as kpayo.
Another graphic representation of the harshness of African politics comes from Gonçalo Mabunda in his companion works, both listed as Untitled Throne. These sorry chairs are structured from decommissioned weapons: parts of AK47s, rocket launchers, bombs, pistols and other symbols of aggression and defence.
In this way, Gonçalo Mabunda highlights the savage civil war that blighted his native Mozambique. Born in Maputo as the conflict raged, his materials are arms recovered in 1992 at the end of the 16-year war. “The deactivated weapons of war carry strong political connotations, yet the beautiful objects he creates also convey a positive reflection on the transformative power of art and the resilience and creativity of African civilian societies,” according to Jack Bell Gallery of St James’s, London, a promoter of his work. The thrones function as attributes of power, tribal symbols and pieces of ethnic African art.
In its role in the refugee crisis, Africa figured in the Summer Exhibition’s top prize. London film maker and installation artist Isaac Julien won the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for his ironically-titled film WESTERN UNION; Small Boats. The six-screen production is the concluding part of his trilogy which alludes to Visconti’s 1963 film of wealth, upheaval and death The Leopard. Isaac Julien follows Visconti in using Sicily as the setting. He juxtaposes opulent scenes of gilded baroque interiors and seductive combinations of sea and landscape with the harsh realities of transcontinental migration as unseaworthy boats disgorge their human cargo. Local families swim and frolic by the rocks, their beach bodies contrasted with dead bodies laid out under shrouds.
Yet another side of Africa is called up by Moroccan-born Hassan Hajjaj, with a startling image that pays tribute to the biker culture of the young women of Marrakesh. They wear traditional veils and djellabah while posing on motorcycles but are defiantly modern. With a nod to glossy studio photography popular in parts of Africa, there is a challenge to Arab culture, and to consumerism – his metallic lambda print is called Henna Bikers and has a wooden frame inlaid neatly with numerous tins of synthetic enamel. Early in his life, Hassan Hajjaj left his native country for London where he was enthused by the club, hip-hop, and reggae scenes. He is a self-taught artist whose work includes portraiture, installation, performance, fashion, and interior design, including furniture made from recycled objects from North Africa. His work “plays with and upends stereotypes, the power of branding, and the familiarity of everyday objects.”
The most direct evocation of the sea and maritime heritage is a bright and glistening sculpture made from fake and real pearl necklaces, bracelets and tiaras. It depicts a Chinese sailing junk named Wing Wo, inspired by Wing Wo Wave City, an industrial estate in the province of Zhuijang which manufactures huge quantities of pearl adornments.
Kent-based sculptor Ann Carrington says that the work is about the discrepancy between the perception of pearls being timeless status symbols of refined taste and wealth (with exotic overtones) and the often-unromantic reality. This sailing junk is “believing the dream, cruising on a tangled never-ending sea of wedding tiaras, chokers and earrings.” The sculpture is on sale at a pearly price: £26,300. Still on a nautical theme, Ann was commissioned to make the Royal Jubilee Banner for the Queen in celebration of her diamond Jubilee in 2012. The velvet banner was studded with half a million gold buttons, and hung from the stern of the Royal Barge The Spirit of Chartwell as it made its way up the Thames from Battersea to London Bridge in the Diamond Jubilee procession. The banner was recently purchased by The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, to hang permanently in the Haberdashers’ Hall, West Smithfield. Previously Ann has used pearl buttons to create giant depictions of a postage stamp, and has crafted works from found metal objects from docks. She was commissioned to make pieces for the United Nations in its campaigns over slavery.
The acclaimed jazz and blues singer Amy Winehouse who died aged 27 in 2011 after a tumultuous life, makes an appearance composed of fabric, beads and gemstones, as Amy Remixed. This rag doll-like, red-lipped portrait by Sarah Gwyer is topped with the trademark beehive hairstyle, and the whole has a compelling and moving charm. Sarah, who lives and works in the Cotswolds, describes her practice as contemporary pop, with influences from pop pioneers Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist to contemporary controversialists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Celebrity, consumerism and commercialism – it could be that Amy Winehouse fell victim to all of these. Sarah says that she loves to merge the boundaries between art and craft practices, presenting traditional ways of working to new levels and audiences.
The irrepressible Marina Abramović, an honorary member of the Royal Academy, offers a reminder of one of her latest projects in performance art, one that as always “dramatically tests the endurance and limitations of her own body and mind.” The Belgrade-born star is seen in The Cleaner, a fine art pigment print evoking her new eight-hour collective performance which tested the endurance of spectators as it explored “how we create community through shared experiences and basic human contact.” In the performance, Marina Abramović (in a simple black dress) in the company of another leading collaborator, 30 performers, and many singers and choirs – and her audience — sang what was described as a non-stop soundscape.
From another direction, a Kurdish artist born in Turkey, Ihsan Oturmak recalls schooldays with a touching mixed media work, Blackboard. Ihsan tells his story on the website of Karavil Contemporary, a gallery in Mortimer Street, London W1. He was born the first son of a farmer and a housewife in the village of Gördük in Diyarbakir province, and started work at the age of seven selling chocolate bars at the bus terminal. He owes much to his mother who fought “tooth and nail so I could get a proper education.” Another hero was his secondary school teacher who would bring unfinished oil paintings to class to work on them.
Polemic takes its place in one of the placards of Bob and Roberta Smith, which is the pseudonym of one man, the perennial person of protest Patrick Brill. In this exhibition is Letter to Donald Trump, which is done in bold capitals with sign-writer’s paint on canvas. Trump tweets; the Smith persona taunts. “Dear Donald…” the ‘letter’ begins in emollient tones, quoting for several lines inspirational words from John F Kennedy, Adelai Stevenson and Martin Luther King, before thundering: “Only someone with a warped sense of humour would distribute to future generations your utterances demeaning women and minority groups” and warning “with walls the world is not free.”
Bob and Roberta Smith produced a poster in similar format for the UK General Election – A People’s Manifesto for the Arts—calling for more focus on the arts in schools and other spheres of life, abandoning Brexit, and scrapping student fees. Over recent years, he has written letters in poster protest form to Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Nicky Morgan and “Dear Pissed-Off Voter.”
An academician and leading architect, Farshid Moussavi, has taken a refreshing approach in curating the architecture gallery within the exhibition. She was keen that for the first time, this gallery would “just focus on drawing” in a direct narrative.
She sought to celebrate architecture by focusing on “what you see and what you don’t see, a kind of hide and seek” in each building, by featuring construction coordination drawings – those which show the full complexity of a building. She wanted to allow each to become “a piece for a gallery, rather than a technical drawing.” Here are works by Royal Academicians including the newly-elected David Adjaye and Richard Rogers, and by Grafton Architects, Bjarke Ingels, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
Among her choices is a digital print mounted on aluminium of level 17 of the Herzog & de Meuron floorplan with mechanical ductwork, of the much-praised new concert hall Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. This project has been a shining example of the revitalisation of the traditional port area of this great city. The finished building is notable for its inclusive auditorium which yields great acoustics – the ultimate test of a concert hall.
Farshid Moussavi is principal of Farshid Moussavi Architecture and Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She was earlier a co-founder of London-based Foreign Office Architects, where she co-authored projects including Yokohama International Cruise Terminal. The terminal was constructed from 1995-2002 as a long-span, arched steel structure “designed to merge with the landscape of the city’s harbour and serve as a public space.” In rejecting the traditional monumentality of port architecture, it has “not only altered the way people think about travel when visiting the terminal but has also inspired them to engage with the physical environment of a terminal in unexpected ways.” Ms Moussavi is most recently working on projects including residential complexes in the La Défense district of Paris and in Montpellier, and an office complex in the City of London.
Tim Marlow, artistic director of the Royal Academy, said that this year there were added difficult circumstances in setting up the Summer Exhibition, as it proceeded while major work was going on to connect Burlington House on Piccadilly and its nearby premises known as Burlington Gardens, to create new public areas and a theatre on the two-acre site. That the exhibition mission was fulfilled while “underneath us the building linking these institutions is being finished” was, said Mr Marlow, testimony to the professionalism of the academy’s curatorial team and the artist selectors.
Ms Devaney said that the institution was preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2018 with special focus on the Summer Exhibition and its history. The summer event has been held every year since 1769 and continues to play an important part in raising funds to finance students of the RA Schools.
Sponsor of the 2017 summer exhibition is asset management company Insight Investment, a subsidiary of BNY Mellon.
It was announced meanwhile that Eileen Cooper is to step down from her position as RA Keeper which she has occupied since 2010, being the first woman in that post.
She will be replaced by Rebecca Salter, who has been an academician since 2014, and Ms Cooper will continue to be associated with the academy.
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017 is until August 20 2017, 10am- 6pm daily.
Late night opening Fridays until 10pm.
Picture captions in detail:
Amy Remixed. Mixed media: fabric, beads and gemstones. By Sarah Gwyer.
Wing Wo. Fake and real pearl necklaces, bracelets and tiaras. By Ann Carrington.
Exhibition poster based on Yinka Shonibare’s work.
Wind Sculpture by Yinka Shonibare in Burlington House courtyard.
Section of display in Central Hall. Upper exhibit is Very Nice Ride (aluminium, peacock feathers, rubber and motor) and left to right Angel (Red) by Yinka Shonibare, The Cleaner by Marina Abramović, and Poet Singing, First Version, by Jim Dine.
Ballet Africa. By Yinka Shonibare. Screenprint with glaze on hand-deckled Somerset Tub Sized paper. Courtesy of the artist.
Henna Bikers. Metallic lambda print. By Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of the artist.
Two exhibits Untitled Throne. Decommissioned arms. By Gonçalo Mabunda.
Blackboard. Mixed media. By Ihsan Oturmak.
The Cleaner. Fine art pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper © Marina Abramović. Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photography Dawn Blackman.
Julieta (Film Notes) (Triptych). Oil. By Rose Wylie.
Cloud Island. Oil. By Tom Hammick.
Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, 2001-16, level 17 floorplan with mechanical ductwork of main concert hall. Digital print mounted on aluminium. Herzog & de Meuron.
Letter to Donald Trump. Signwriters’ paint on canvas. By Bob and Roberta Smith.
Till the Morning Comes. Oil. By Eileen Cooper. © Eileen Cooper. Photography Justin Piperger.