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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021

Updated: Sep 17, 2021


Exhibition Review: The Royal Academy, 22 September - 2 January 2022.

Tickets from £20. Under 16s go free. Book tickets here. #RASummer

[Disclosure: I attended the press day for this exhibition for free, for the purposes of this review.]

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is here! Slightly delayed for the second year running, due to COVID, the exhibition will open its doors to the public on Wednesday 22 September and run until the new year.

For those not familiar with the RA’s Summer Exhibition, each year the RA invites people from all over the world, anybody and everybody, to submit works for the exhibition. The RA also invites established artists, as well as artists who represent a particular group which the academy wishes to highlight. Would you like to submit for next year’s exhibition? If so, keep an eye out here.

Room III, Curated by Yinka Shonibare. Photo taken on my iPhone.

For this year’s exhibition, the RA received 15,000 entries from artists, both amateur and professional, from all over the world. Those 15,000 entries have been whittled down to approximately 1,400 pieces in all different media including sound. There are 13 rooms in the exhibition, and each room has been curated by a different artist/s.

Part of Room IV - Curated by Bob and Roberta Smith. Photo taken on my iPhone.

The theme for the year’s exhibition is “Reclaiming Magic” and despite the diverse range of works on display, there is a definite sense of magic, both literally and metaphorically, that runs throughout the show.

Carla Gaita, Please Enter Your Pin: Room IX. Taken on my iPhone.

Some rooms are hugely playful and sheer fun – the Lecture Room in particular, curated by Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothschild is an utter joy – exuberant and lively – it feels like walking into the most wonderful toy shop in the world and makes you want to play with everything on display.

The Lecture Room curated by Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothschild. Taken on my iPhone.

It took real self-control not to pick up and play with the Indian Teddies by Permindar Kaur or to try on and ultimately squash the Tea Party shoes by Liz Valenti made from the foil wrappers of Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate Tea Cakes.

Part of the Lecture Room display, curated by Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothschild. Taken on my iPhone.

If you are bringing young children, it is the Lecture Room where you will have to keep an extra special eye on them – everything is tempting, colourful and looks tactile.

Liz Valenti, Tea Party Shoes, on display in the Lecture Room display, curated by Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothschild. Taken on my iPhone.

Another theme that the RA has chosen to highlight this year, and which is always present in these beautiful shows, is to celebrate the self-taught artist. This year, the RA wishes to celebrate those self-taught artists who are from marginalised communities who may not have had the privilege of going to a school where art lessons are considered an essential part of the curriculum. Room I highlights many of these self-taught artists and I particularly loved Johnson Weree’s beautiful portraits in coloured pencil and ink on paper.

Room I, curated by Yinka Shonibare. In the middle, you can see the series of 9 portraits created by Johnson Weree and on the red wall, you can see artist Bill Traylor's works. Taken on my iPhone.

This year’s exhibition has a special dedication to self-taught American artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949), who was born into slavery and only started drawing when he was 86 years old. It’s Room 1 where Traylor’s beautiful pieces are given special prominence. In fact, Room 1 has some real gems and deserves some extra time and attention. It might be worth going back to Room 1 once you’ve finishing going through the whole exhibition.

Another view of Room I, curated by Yinka Shonibare. Taken on my iPhone.

Given the huge range of art on display, everybody will find something that they love and connect with at this exhibition. With 13 rooms packed from floor to ceiling with art works, as well as taking up sound space, the experience can be overwhelming and it can be difficult to see the art works as anything but a colourful, all-encompassing blur.

The large Weston room, curated by David Adjaye. Taken on my iPhone.

I like to approach an exhibition like this by going through it twice – the first time, I spend a few hours just wandering and letting everything wash over me. Then I leave the exhibition, take a break, and come back to spend another few hours zoning in and seeing detail.

Room VI, curated by Mali Morris. Taken on my iPhone.

I realise that this is not the way most people will be able to approach an exhibition, so I’ve created a trail – which you are welcome to print out and bring with you to the exhibition. In the trail, I’ve chosen my favourite pieces in each room to help you zone in on detail, decide whether you agree with my choices, while you let the whole impact wash over you. If you find the experience overwhelming my hope would be that my trail will help you structure your visit so that you get more out of it..

Room IX, curated by Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothschild. Taken on my iPhone.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the 253rd consecutive summer exhibition – two pandemics and two world wars have not stopped the Royal Academy from putting on this unique show and I’m so grateful. This exhibition is a sheer joy.

Room III, curated by Yinka Shonibare. Taken on my iPhone.

Trail – The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021 – Reclaiming Magic

I’ve chosen my favourite pieces in each room and listed them below. My hope is that by finding and looking for the pieces I've chosen as my favourites and thinking about whether you agree, I might help you zoom in on some detail. Perhaps this will help you get more out of your visit as you let the whole riotous, colourful experience wash over you.

Room 1 – Curated by Yinka Shonibare

Number 4: Johnson Weree, Untitled, Coloured Pencil and Ink on Paper.

Numbers 82-86: Bill Traylor , to whom the whole exhibition is dedicated to. Traylor, born a slave, only began to create artworks in his late 80s.

Number 40: Betye Saar, Red Ascension.

Number 33: Robert Matthew, A Day in the Life.

Room II – Curated by Humphrey Ocean

Number 112: Kate Bradbury, The Puppeteers.

Number 140: Stuart Voller, Richard. Fans of the IT Crowd will enjoy seeing this portrait of Richard Ayoade.

Large Weston Room – Curated by David Adjaye

Number 195: Loredana Micu, Mapping the Hill of the Impala/Kampala.

Room III – Curated by Yinka Shonibare

Number 350: Gordon Benson, Recycled Garden and Text.

Room IV – Curated by Bob and Roberta Smith

Number 450 – Joshua Uvieghara, Isio Shift

Room V – Curated by Emma Stibbon

Number 714: Emma Wood, Finchley Road.

Number 722: Luke Woodgate, The Whistler.

Room VI – Curated by Mali Morris

Overall, this was my least favourite room. Do you agree?

Number 832: Chitra Merchant, Devakad – Rose and Wild Mango

Room VII – Curated by Emma Stibbon

This room holds my favourite piece in the whole exhibition! It’s Number 959 by Tracey Emin. Do you agree?

Number 959: Tracey Emin, Mother 3 Beginning and the End.

Number 998: Emma Studd Dina Locker, Anni.

Room VIII – Curated by Tony Bevan

Number 1059: Chantel Joffe, Claire and Nelia.

Room IX – Curated by Vanessa Jackson and Emma Rothschild

Number 1139: Jenny Leigh, Be Still and Know that I Am.

Lecture Room – Curated by Vanessa Jackson and Emma Rothschild

The most fun room in the whole exhibition.

Number 1164: Permindar Kaur, Indian Teddies.

Number 1169: Liz Valenti, Tea Party Shoes.

Wohl Central Hall – Curated by Yinka Shonibare

This is the room that has the image that is the feature image for the exhibition – it’s on posters, on the RA website, etc. It’s also my favourite image in this room and one of my favourites of the whole exhibition.

Number 1350: Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Oubliez Le Passe Et Vour Perdez Les Deux Yeux.


All photos © Catherine Flutsch 2021. I took the photos for this blog post with my iPhone on press day. As is immediately obvious, I am not a photographer and my photos do not do justice to the art. A shout out to the real photographers at press day, with their fantastic cameras, who spent a very long time taking beautiful photos and ensuring the perfect composition, lenses, lighting and post production only to have bloggers like me wipe hand cream off my iPhone lense with my shirt and take terrible photos. Apologies.

2 commenti

02 ott 2021

Hi Catherine, That was a very nice review, thanks for posting it. I'm curious did you take in any of the video art on show? My work was selected and i'm interested to know how it is experienced in the exhibition. I was unable to attend unfortunately. James

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Catherine Flutsch
Catherine Flutsch
05 ott 2021
Risposta a

Thank you so much James for taking the time to read my review. I remember that I enjoyed seeing all the pieces, including the video pieces. I know a lot of artists are worried about their works being lost in the multitude of work on display. It's a legitimate worry. That's why I like to take my time and also take a break when looking at the works - to try give each work a fair viewing. With so many works though, it is hard. I did get quite exhausted by the end of the day. How your work is experienced will depend on so many different things including, quite importantly, the state of mind of the viewer!

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