The Five Best Institutional Shows to See in the UK

From Paula Rego’s unflinching women to Ellen Harvey’s mournful, forgotten buildings, these are the best institutional shows in the UK

BY frieze in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 03 SEP 21

James Barnor
James Barnor, Drum Cover Girl, Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Autograph ABP, London

James Barnor 

Serpentine Galleries, London

James Barnor captured ordinary Ghanaians, from all ends of the social spectrum, at his Ever Young studio in Accra during the 1950s. As a press photographer for the Daily Graphic newspaper, his reportage of the events leading up to and then celebrating Ghana’s independence in 1957 have come to define a moment of extraordinary optimism. From his casual portraits of the nation’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, to the hope embodied in the details of city life, Barnor’s images capture the profound change of the mid-20th century.


Marianna Simnett The Needle and the Larynx
Marianna Simnett, The Needle and the Larynx, 2016, film still. Courtesy: © the artist and Serpentine Galleries, London

British Art Show 9

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum

British Art Show 9 is an energy event that the curators and Hayward Gallery Touring – which commissioned the show – have gone to extraordinary lengths to stage in a pandemic. It will open in cities (hopefully) while the UK begins to lift restrictions. Emblazoned across Pandhal’s Descending Selkie’s Staircase (Psychologically) (2020) appear the prophetic words ‘conclusion comes first then then I make up the method’. Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar built this exhibition without a preconceived framework or ‘conclusion’; they met 230 artists and let the work guide their decision-making.


Ellen Harvey Turner Contemporary
Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Turner Contemporary 

Ellen Harvey

Turner Contemporary, Margate

Ellen Harvey’s The Disappointed Tourist (2019–ongoing) – consisting of over 220 paintings – is an archive of sites that once existed and now live on in collective memory. The individual locations – ranging from amusement parks to classical monuments – appear hung in an enormous grid in the artist’s solo show, ‘The Tourists’, at Margate’s Turner Contemporary. The impression is of something quite mournful, like a wall of faces of missing people after a disaster.


Paula Rego
Paula Rego, Possession IV, 2004, pastel on paper on aluminium, 1.5 × 1 m. Courtesy: © Paula Rego and Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto

Paula Rego

Tate Britain, London

Paula Rego’s paintings unflinchingly, mercilessly depict the pain and indifference women have historically experienced at the hands of men. At the back of The Betrothal, in what could be a doorway or yet another mirror or a painting, a clothed man watches a woman undress; she is peering into her knickers. This scene is echoed in Snow White and Her Stepmother (1995) – Rego frequently pays homage to beloved Disney films – in which the smartly dressed stepmother seems to be helping Snow White take her knickers off as she leans on her; both are grim-faced. Intimations of surveilled sexuality abound; some kind of humiliation or punishment lies ahead.


Zadie Xa
Zadie Xa, Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Art Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers, 2021, installation view at Leeds Art Gallery, developed in collaboration with artist Benito Mayor Vallejo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Zadie Xa

Leeds Art Gallery

Zadie Xa’s non-linear narrative underscores the urgency of cross-species interdependency for reimagining and reconnecting with the natural world and reforming the human systems that have damaged it. By framing folklore through an array of relatable references, Moon Poetics encourages accountability in the shared compost heap of this heating planet that is, as Donna Haraway writes, ‘neither sacred nor secular; thoroughly terrain, muddled and mortal – and at stake now.’

Main image: Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988, acrylic on paper on canvas, 2.1 × 2.7 m. Courtesy: © Paula Rego and Tate

Contemporary Art and Culture