Recently I got the opportunity to attend the unveiling of the Royal Academy’s new public art project in collaboration with Art of London. A series of works by multidisciplinary artists have taken over Piccadilly as flags, crossings, digital trails, sculptures and screenings. The goal is to welcome the public back to central London and is notably considerate not only because it is easily accessible and digitally portable, but is also outdoors and therefore although some may still prefer only to walk in the area, they can participate in the exploration of art as well. The journey is an interactive one starting at the RA and moving up towards Oxford Circus, and then back down towards Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square. Some works feature popular characters from films, and others are an invitation to dance.

The Piccadilly Art Takeover was unveiled today in London – a large-scale public art commission of the iconic area in the capital, with artists associated with the Royal Academy of Arts designing flags, pedestrian crossings and filmed pieces for the 780 sqm Piccadilly Lights. The takeover marks the beginning of a season of free, accessible public art in the area. Photo by: Heart of London Business Alliance

I spoke to Rebecca Lyons, the Director of Collections & Learning about the accessibility of the project and how the RA have navigated the pandemic.

Ksenia Kazintseva: I’m really interested in how the RA have navigated blending digital and physical learning as well as exhibitions in light of the current situation? This show is of course a great example of that, and encouraging greater interaction again.

Rebecca Lyons: We have also set up a Saturday sketch club online which has been an amazing opportunity to get people drawing with us, which was hugely successful. We also had artists in conversation about their work, Michael (who is exhibiting at the RA and as part of this project at the moment) was in conversation with the head of Royal Academy Schools online. We’ve had to adapt quite a lot of our practice with family groups and with young people to be able to deliver digitally. We’ve done what we could to reach audiences while we were closed.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Which is why I think this project is incredible, if someone still doesn’t feel comfortable being outside, they can still participate.

Rebecca Lyons: We’ve tried to create a very safe environment at the RA, and there are fewer people which is a great opportunity to see the work. The idea of the project was to welcome people back to central London but also to show that art has the possibility to transform, to change a familiar street, uplift or challenge views. It’s also a way of representing who we are at the Royal Academy. We are a broad church of artists who work in film, sculpture, print, paint, and we have architects as well. So if you look at the artists we’ve selected, I have, along with the team, curated this selection with a great range of voices to represent who we are.

Piccadilly Art Takeover: Launch, London. Photo by: Heart of London Business Alliance

Ksenia Kazintseva: Their diverse practices are what struck me with this project as well.

Rebecca Lyons: And that was very deliberate, that we would have a range of different voices and media and different points of connection with the RA, to reflect who we are, which is a membership of artists and an artist institution. Those who want to find out more can follow the work and the artists on our website. The augmented gallery was also something my teams put together and we deliberately chose for our part of it work by female artists.

British painter Vanessa Jackson created 13 distinctive pedestrian crossings, which almost animate her abstract collage style. It is as though the works are moving together with the people, bringing an explosion of colour to the streets in the area. Entitled UpTownDancing, the crossings are a playful transposition of her paintings evoking the movement and joy of dance. They feature environmentally friendly and lightfast Decomark. I spoke to Vanessa about her influences and the show.

Ksenia Kazintseva: The geometric shapes in the work are absolutely brilliant, what are some of your influences?

Vanessa Jackson: Well, fascinatingly, as an art student, I was very influenced by minimalism and modernism and it took me back to cubism, which eventually brought me back to the Russian constructivists. In the 70s there weren’t that many women in the arts. All of a sudden, I discovered Lyubov Popova, Stepanova, Exter, and so, yes, Russians became very important. And that took me back to icons. So, without politics, the early political works were actually very important.

Piccadilly Art Takeover, London. Photo by: Heart of London Business Alliance

Ksenia Kazintseva: I also found it very interesting following the Dora Maurer show at the Tate, but really interesting interplay in both of your works between movement and geometric shape.

Vanessa Jackson: It’s all about animating the space, and using geometry to do that, like constructivists used to do, whether it’s a plastic space that is grounded, or space moving up into the cosmos. And one of my favourite artists is Sonia Delaunay. She’s Russian and French, very interesting.

Ksenia Kazintseva: That is exactly what I really loved about the works, they are moving despite being static.  

Vanessa Jackson: Well, we’ve just been photographing them and they wanted me to stand and walk, but I kept saying –  this isn’t Abbey Road, I want to dance. I’m a Motown girl, which is quite interesting considering who I’m showing with, I’m the old white lady if you will.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Yes, but I think you’re all exploring that tradition and breaking away from it, cultural roots and the contemporary. And what can we expect from you next?

Vanessa Jackson: I’m a painter, and my practice includes wall paintings, which is why I think this has come up. Wall paintings are different, and use architecture of space. Here I am using architecture of ground. I’m going to carry on painting and making prints. I’m not somebody who is used to any of this. In many ways, it’s the work, not me. I’m interested in the work. I think there’s too much time given to the artist and there needs to be more said about what the work does. It has a function, and I like the idea of form, function and ornament. Those things are important.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Do you feel like your focus is more on the process, or the final result, or maybe the interaction with it?

Vanessa Jackson: All art has a process, but I wouldn’t want that to overshadow the final outcome. And I have many influences, I’m not interested in inventing. I use geometry because it already exists in many cultures, and I’m happy to be part of that. I’d also like to say that one of the nicest things is the people that I’m showing with because they’re all friends of mine. Michael has an incredible exhibition at the RA, and although some of them can’t be here at the unveiling today, they must be mentioned.

Michael Armitage, Fashid Moussavi and Yinka Shonibare designed 30 hanging flags displayed on the way from Green Park towards Piccadilly Circus. These artists have their distinctive styles and work in a range of media, yet their pieces are in conversation, harmonious in the centre of the cultural capital of London. They are aligned with Michael Armitage’s Paradise Edict exhibition at the Royal Academy featuring his work alongside several East African artists chosen by him for their exploration of cultural heritage.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Michael, I was really interested in you exploring elements of folklore in your work. Are there any specific elements you focus on?

Michael Armitage: Folklore is important for me in terms of exploring elements of culture and society. Folklore often uses the environment to emphasise different aspects of imagination, which is very similar to what you do in painting. It’s also useful for reflecting upon situations as they are now. So, whether it’s folklore or mythology or other old stories within culture, fiction or otherwise, all of that for me forms part of the narrative that allows me to reflect on life today, and things I take interest in and want to explore.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Folklore has a really interesting aspect of communal memory embedded in it as well, and many different cultures from Africa to Italy to Russia, really hold on to folklore, tradition and ritual. I read about your influences including Francisco Goya who is a significant contributor to my own practice. Based on your interest in folklore as well, I think he fits into that with the mysticism and sometimes unusual shapes and characters. Nonetheless, what are your other influences, or if Goya is specifically one you return to, why him?  

Michael Armitage: To be honest, I take a lot from different sources whether that’s aspects of Western or Eastern art history, or elements of African history. For particular paintings, I will look to specific artists and narratives, and I will more directly pull from something another artist has done. Goya is definitely dependable, an artist I go back to again and again, and one that I was moved by the first time I saw his work. Particularly in his black paintings, they are unlike anything else that anyone’s made before and after. They are raw and vulgar and able to touch on so many different aspects of human experience and live in the world of the imagination while speaking to something real. So, he is really important for me and someone I continually return to. And in the same vein, as part of this exhibition, the artist Meek Gichugu who from a very early age and in a similar way to Goya had this raw engagement and used elements of imagination to reflect upon society. He used his form of expression, an extremely raw and direct language to explore and often criticise parts of society. But also reflect on not only the mythological aspect but the sociopolitical element of culture.

Ksenia Kazintseva: Speaking of other artists involved, how did you choose them?

Michael Armitage: The painters are Macua and Elimo Njau and Theresa Musoke, they are three of the older generation artists at home who, particularly the former two, were studying in the 50s and 60s during the colonial time at Makerere University in Kampala. They had a huge impact on the embryonic stages of contemporary art in Kenya and East Africa. And particularly, the thinking around Pan-African issues and concerns across the continent. They were trying to find their own way using a language that perhaps has roots in Western culture, and use those within their own culture. Then you have Theresa Musoke who has a very different approach to making paintings but again is from a similar generation. She is thinking about the symbiotic relationship between people, landscape, society, culture, and that’s reflected in her language. They are crossover artists between that and the younger generation. One of the latter is Jak Katarikawe, who studied in Kampala at Makerere for a couple of years unofficially and was self-taught. He showed his work to a professor, and subsequently moved to Nairobi. This kickstarted a whole new movement, he became very successful and had a very different aesthetic to the other so-called educated artists. That opened the door for the Ngecha movement to happen where they were saying, we want to work in a very different way against this idea of a taught language and that type of history. And so, they were self-taught, and with their visual language as well as the way they spoke about the work, they tried to shift the way people looked at art and thought about art in Kenya. The Ngecha Collective was started by Sane Wadu and Meek Gichugu who are both in this show. Although it is very difficult to do through six artists, this is a way to track their progress and the change of language and thinking in figurative painting in Kenya from the 50s to 2000.

The Piccadilly Art Takeover is up until August 31st 2021 and Michael Armitage’s show Paradise Edict is on until September 19th 2021.