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London's Royal Academy of Arts Gets Witchy for Summer

One of Britain’s oldest arts institutions embraces pagan traditions in celebration of its Summer Exhibition.
Installation view of Yinka Shonibare Wind Sculpture VI at the Summer Exhibition 2017 (c) David Parry.

Yurts filled with flower-clad models, horned animal masks, and tributes to Pagan deities is the last thing you'd expect to find in the hustle and bustle of Central London, but last Saturday night was an exception. Both art lovers and the spiritually attuned gathered, all adorned in fancy dress, to celebrate the summer solstice and one of the Royal Academy of Arts most anticipated showings, the Summer Exhibition.


"It's just a nice way to experience the art," attendee Mel Hoyes tells Creators. "It's nice to come [to exhibitions] when there's a bit of a party vibe. It feels a bit free."

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) is a gallery and arts school that has been promoting creativity and arts training in Britain since 1768, having provided a platform, led by artists, for intellectual debate and multidisciplinary works and performances. Every year, the institution holds an open call for talent, asking artists of any level, practice and background to submit work to be exhibited and sold in its Summer Exhibition. Thousands of entries are narrowed down to approximately 1,500.

Photo: Catherine Chapman

While the show can be seen in the daytime, it's these late events, paired with a theme, that truly celebrate its artistic merit, helping to engage with new audiences and London's wider arts communities and institutions.

Deniz Aslan is an illustrator who responded to this year's summer solstice theme by organizing a Pagan craft workshop, where participants made dolls paying homage to a Celtic goddess.

"I'm really interested in Pagan beliefs and my family always celebrates the summer solstice," she says. "Here we are making Brigid Dolls, which you make out of straw around May, June, and July. Brigid is the Pagan goddess of abundance and making these is a nice way to celebrate summer."

Photo: Catherine Chapman

Keeping with the solstice setting, mystical creatures that changed poses on a small stage inside a yurt also provided inspiration for those wanting to put pencil to paper.


"Life drawing has been a key part of the technical ability of art for so long and the Royal Academy is certainly home to so many of its studies," says Chris Jones of the Art Model Collective. "It's definitely a way to hone your artistic craft. Some people have probably never done this before so it's kind of cool to get them involved."

Photo: Catherine Chapman

Inside, 16 rooms display the diverse work that's been selected for the Summer Exhibition, giving a broad global look into contemporary art at the moment. From paintings by Turner Prize nominee Sean Scully and British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who was also part of the Selection Committee, to pieces by Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, and Marina Abramović, works by art world giants hang democratically beside pieces from those lesser known. Sales go towards funding arts education at the Royal Academy.

But receiving a post-graduate arts degree here is only for the few, which is why the Summer Exhibition's late night opening serves as opportunity for artists attending other programs to get involved, like Tuli Litvak, Zara Sands, and Aaron Baksh. They created a contemporary twist on Maypole dancing, thinking about nature in urban settings through sculpture and freeform dance.

"I think that collaboration like this is the future," says Litvak. "I don't think it's yet institutionalized, and so it's kind of individuals doing it but it will be interesting to see if institutions start adopting that and breaking through these barriers."


Sean Scully RA, Full House, Oil and acrylic spray on aluminium, 279.4 x 676.9 cm, © Sean Scully. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London. Photography: Robert Bean.

Marina Abramović Hon RA, The Cleaner, Fine art pigment print on Hahnemühle paper,139 x 139 cm, © Marina Abramović. Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photography: Dawn Blackman.

Photo: Catherine Chapman

The Royal Academy of Arts' Summer Exhibition is on until August 20, 2017, with another Lates opening on August 19, 2017. Find out more here.


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