Art roundup 2021 – London and Athens edition

Two women smiling
Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2. Lakeside, Johannesburg. 2007 © Zanele Muholi

This year marked the return of gallery and cinema exhibition but 2021 also put brave new works in the spotlight. This list features exhibitions and films that had an enduring influence towards my own practice.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition at Tate Britain, Fly in League with the Night, was probably one of the most popular this year. Quite rightly so. Painting felt current, modern, with black hair and black characters. Oil painted fictions, not video or photography or interactive art. The exhibition was cut short by lockdown. It is currently touring internationally before being restaged at Tate Britain for a full 3-month run from 24 November 2022 until 26 Febraury 2023.

Acclaimed photographer, visual activist Zanele Muholi’s first major UK survey at Tate Modern featured over 260 photographs including Faces and Phases, Brave Beauties and the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama. They challenge South Africa’s oppression, discrimination and violence towards its LGBTQIA+ community, despite its equality promised 1996 constitution.

Eileen Agar’s retrospective exhibition Angel of Anarchy at the Whitechapel Gallery brought together over 150 works from the 1920s to the 1990s. It was a journey through her unique multi-disciplinary style in painting, collage, photography, sculpture and hats.

The first touring retrospective of Isamu Noguchi’s work in Europe in 20 years covered 6 decades of his risk taking practice. His celebrated coffee table and washi paper Akari electric lights were among some of the treasures in the exhibition that delved into his vast output from public to political art projects, sculptures, ceramics and radical dance projects.

An internationalist who travelled extensively, Noguchi’s work is engaged with the aura of a range of disciplines and schools through his many collaborations. From his early years in Paris as an apprentice to modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi, then an apprentice to Chinese ink-brush master Qi Baishi in Beijing and his lifelong collaborations with artists including composer John Cage, architect Louis Kahn and dancer Martha Graham, Noguchi’s practice is one to remember. The exhibition at the Barbican was a highlight because it had the power to influence on a cosmic level.

Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle exhibition at Barbican’s The Curve space was photographer and activist Claudia Andujar’s 5-decade work of documenting and defending Brazil’s largest indigenous peoples. Through her photographs, audio-visual recordings and drawings, the Barbican’s exhibition surveyed the art and culture of the Yanomami through Andujar’s commitment and activism. A glorious achievement.

The retrospective exhibition of Vangelis Gokas’s work at the Municipal Gallery of Athens, Greece, during the summer, attempted to show how the post-mortem influences the artist’s work through a selection of large-scale charcoal drawings, oil paintings on postcards and studies from his recent work since 2018. Primarily a selection of portraits and landscapes, Gokas experiments with flare. His small-scale paintings are especially well defined and absorbing. But his larger drawings, though eerie, at times they were lost in their enormous size.

This year’s Athens Biennial (7th edition) took place in 3 main spaces, one of which was an abandoned department store Fokas. With Greece’s deep economic uncertainty, it was a huge effort from the production team to bring it all together. All the rest was about exploring the offerings from curators Omsk Social Club and Larry Ossei-Mensah who curated this year’s edition. Some highlights included multimedia platform Contemporary And (C&), sculptor Vasilis Papageorgiou, photographers Yorgos Prinos and Zohra Opoku, the chaotic ecosystems on digital screens by Theo Triantafyllidis, ceramicist Eugenia Vereli and the playful drawings by Suzanne Treister.

A new documentary feature revealed the untold story of Anglo-Somali punk icon Poly Styrene, the first woman of colour in the UK to front a rock band (X-Ray Spex). Directed by Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a powerful film about identity, surviving misogyny and racism in 1970s Britain and coming out of it mentally ill. It unveils the punk singer’s unopened artistic archive and features readings from her diary.

John Akomfrah’s new multiscreen video installation Four Nocturnes (2019) had its UK premier at Lisson Gallery this year as part of the artist’s show, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster. In its furious succession of footage images and newly filmed staged scenes, we are witnessing our position as refugees at a time when we’re steadily loosing our natural world. It’s probably Akomfrah’s most haunting and naturalistic film to date. The show at Lisson Gallery included a series of photo-text and print works and it was a direct response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the demonstrations against the imperialist monuments in 2020.

Raoul Peck’s documentary for mainstream American television HBO, Exterminate All the Brutes, tells the history of colonialism and slavery from a nonwhite, non-Western viewpoint. It is necessary to watch not just because it’s food for thought but because it’s a new perspective of history. The film is divided in four chapters-episode and it’s still available on major streaming platforms.

This year also saw the premier of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the first academy award winning woman of colour Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, the restoration of the first ever feature film in the African language of Wolof Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi (1968) and artist Lubaina Himid’s overdue retrospective at Tate Modern.

2021 wrapped.