RECLAIMING MAGIC: RA Summer Exhibition 2021

We review the RA's exuberant Summer Exhibition. Curated by British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare

For those who aren’t already acquainted, the annual RA Summer Exhibition is one of the most exciting events on the London cultural calendar. The exhibition is a joyful celebration of modern art and architecture, allowing anyone to enter their work, from established artists to household names to young and developing talent – it serves as an important showcase for the artistic community and what they’ve been doing, subsequently serving as an exuberant creative capsule of our socio-cultural landscape year-on-year.

Read on for an overview of the Exhibition’s 253-year history and a look at our favourite works.

The Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show and has taken place every year without interruption since 1769.

Running even throughout both World Wars, in 1917, a bomb from a German Gotha plane dropped through the roof of Gallery IX (you can still make out the shrapnel scars in the Summer Exhibition galleries, if you look close enough you can find them on the doorframe between Gallery IX and the Lecture Room).

Works from all over the world are judged democratically on merit and the final selection is made during the eight-day hang in the galleries. This year the Royal Academy received over 15,000 entries, of which, around 1,400 works, in a range of media, are on display. This open, inclusive and democratic show supports the artistic community, art education and provides a display of creativity and joy for the public.

Gallery view the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition 2021. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

The majority of works in the Summer Exhibition are for sale, offering visitors an opportunity to take home their favourite pieces and purchase some incredible original work. Funds raised support the exhibiting artists as well as the postgraduate students studying in the RA Schools and the work of the Royal Academy.

The RA School is the longest established art school in the UK and offers the only free three-year postgraduate programme in Europe, of which the summer exhibition is the primary funder. The exhibition is not only an opportunity to get up close with a vibrant and eclectic capsule of some of the most exciting talent in the creative fields, but also offers the opportunity for members of the public to support the much-in-need arts and culture sector and contribute to the artistic education of the best emerging talent in the UK.

This year’s 253rd annual instalment explores the theme “Reclaiming Magic”.

Yinka Shonibare, the Coordinator of the Summer Exhibition 2021, said, “This exhibition seeks a return to the visceral aspects and the sheer joy of art-making. It will celebrate the transformative powers of the magical in art and transcend the Western canon which formed the foundations of the Royal Academy, seeking to restore value to marginalised practices as equally valid forms of enlightenment.”

Each Summer Exhibition has a “coordinator,” who is chosen from among the Academicians, the RA’s artist members. And as difficult as it is to project any vision upon the colossal mass of public submissions, Yinka Shonibare has something to say, and in doing so the British-Nigerian artist manages to succeed in the poetic miracle of establishing some order.

His vision is summarised in a short wall writing in the first gallery: “Reclaiming Magic,” the theme of this year’s show, is about “restoring value” to “marginalised practises” and promoting “previously unseen voices.”

In Gallery I, you find the work of self-taught artist Bill Traylor (1853–1949) who began making art at the age of 85, as the touchstone and main inspiration for the Summer Exhibition. Born into slavery, Traylor experienced the Civil War, segregation, the Great Migration, and the perilous existence of African American people in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Traylor’s work sets the tone for the exhibition, featuring self-taught artists, artists working with unconventional materials, works by neuro-diverse artists, and submissions from a number of charitable organisations.

Overall, this years’ exhibition is an exuberant showcase of excellence. Shonibare curates a vibrant and eclectic show of joy that tackles poignant social issues of racial injustices and addressing the unsettling truths of the RA’s colonial history with humour, optimism and a true fighting spirit.

There is not one piece in the 1,300+ chosen that is not worthy of looking at. One could easily spend an entire day being immersed by these pieces- with truthfully, not one piece of mediocre work.

The entire exhibition oozes optimism; the vibrant colours, the tactility of the pieces, the sheer range and politicised injections- which feel not as stoic as they are satiric. Exemplifying the one positive thing to come out of the events of the last year- Britons got creativity-busy and created some truly beautiful, and important work.

Swipe through below to see our edit of favourite pieces.

Images Provided by The Royal Academy of Arts © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts