Elephant’s Artists of the Year 2021, Part 1

Curators, writers and artists choose the creative figures who’ve excited them the most over the past 12 months

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, We Are Here Because of Those That Are Not, 2020. Courtesy the artist

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

Chosen by David Blandy, a British artist who often explores the digital world in his work: “Danielle’s work is visceral, combining loads of stuff I like (1990s video games, electronica, body horror and psychedelia) and uses that emotional power to create an encounter with our position as a subject. Who are we really? Where do we stand? And what are we going to do about it? On a mission to archive Black trans lives, Danielle’s practice is process-based and playful, creating a visual lo-fi overload that makes you feel and makes you think.”

Arthur Jafa, AGHDRA, 2021, video still. © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery
Arthur Jafa, AGHDRA, 2021, video still. © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Arthur Jafa

Chosen by Mark Leckey, a British artist working with collage art, music and video: “I haven’t really been out to see anything this year, only viewing things remotely. But then I do think that some things have a telepresence, an immediacy that you can feel at a distance. And Arthur Jafa’s AGHDRA over in New York affected me this way. Every day I distractedly toggle through social media and art sites, and with this piece you could feel a swell, a gathering, like some terrible yet compelling phenomenon was happening across the Atlantic.”

Jasleen Kaur, Women Hold Up Half The Sky, 2019

Jasleen Kaur

Chosen by London-based art critic Hettie Judah: “An artist of exceptional intelligence, integrity and clarity of thought, Jasleen is a deft and meticulous maker of objects, but also a generous and open-spirited collaborator. While it was published in 2019, her artist book Be Like Teflon has been very ‘present’ this year. I’m not alone in finding it one of the most moving and honest documents that I’ve encountered, one that is brilliantly conceived as a ‘total object,’ and experimental in its structure and methodology.

“Jasleen is vocal in her critique of institutions and their habitual modes of practice. Dealing with Touchstones, Rochdale this year for her project Gut Feelings Meri Jaan, she was invited to change that institution’s mode of working with participants from the community, suggesting that they be considered as creative partners and remunerated as such. I’m really excited to see more of her work in the year ahead.”

Brian Karlsson

Chosen by Joel Meyerowitz, an American street photographer widely considered a pioneer of colour photography:BOOK by Brian Karlsson has been a total surprise. The photographs, by turns humble observations and visual surprises, nonetheless drew me into every frame. Plus there are commentaries and poetic texts, all set in a vintage IBM Selectric Typewriter font. These pages are fresh works of typographic art that are (in formal terms) purely visual, and yet equally significant to the photographs in what they have to say.”

Louise Giovanelli, Plaza, 2021

Louise Giovanelli

Chosen by Russell Tovey, an English actor, art collector and co-host of the podcast TalkArt: “One of the most exciting exhibitions of the year has been Mixing It Up: Painting Today curated by Ralph Rugoff at the Hayward Gallery where young British painter Louise Giovanelli was a total standout. Her captivating, luminous paintings vibrate. Images that celebrate and harness in-between moments cropped from within filmic pop culture and art-historical references feel totally magnetic and fresh. I’ve been lucky enough to meet, hang out and share a few pints with Louise, and as well as being a superstar talent she’s also a blooming lovely person. Louise Giovanelli is one of our best British artists and definitely one to watch and follow.”

Rindon Johnson, Coeval Proposition #2: Last Year’s Atlantic, or You look really good, you look like you pretended like nothing ever happened, or a Weakening (install), 2021. Photo: Andy Keate. Courtesy the artist

Rindon Johnson

Chosen by Zoé Whitley, director of the Chisenhale Gallery: “Rindon Johnson is hands-down my favourite artist of the year. Even before the joy of co-commissioning his first UK solo exhibition at Chisenhale with our friends at Sculpture Center, he’s that rare combination of artistic brilliance, working with an assured and original visual language of his own making, and with a generosity toward his peers. This End the Sun, a collaborative exhibition with artists Maryam Hoseini and Jordan Strafer, took place at the New Museum earlier this year, with a genuine chill demeanour that was cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm. He also brought the Atlantic Ocean into the gallery—how awesome is that?”

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Sitting by Sekuru’s grave, 2019. Photo: Andy Keate. Courtesy the artist and Tyburn Gallery

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami

Chosen by Gemma Rolls-Bentley, chief curator of Avante Arte: “I’ve been really inspired by Kudzanai-Violet Hwami in 2021. The London-based artist, who grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, had her first solo show with Victoria Miro Gallery, sharing the gallery space with another of my fav artists from this year, Doron Langberg. Her work was also featured in the Hayward Gallery’s major painting exhibition Mixing It Up: Painting Today. Her solo show included a series of large-scale paintings, incorporating collaged photographs and photocopies of faces that hover voyeuristically over intimately painted nudes. Exploring themes of identity, sexuality, spirituality and fragility, her powerful work feels very timely and I’m excited to see what next year holds for her.”

Emeka Ogboh, The Way Earthly Things Are Going (install), 2017. © der Künstler, Tate Modern 2017

Emeka Ogboh

Chosen by Azu Nwagbogu, founder and director of African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos: “In a year affected and influenced by the pandemic, Emeka Ogboh’s public art projects took on a more poignant meaning. With normal museum and gallery experiences flatlined, This Too Shall Pass in Frankfurt and Song of the Union for the Edinburgh Arts reflect but also transcend our epoch.”

Cathy Wilkes

Chosen by artist Lucy Stein, an artist based in Cornwall with an interest in British modernist painting and feminist theory: “Whenever I feel overwhelmed by trying to mother and be an artist at the same time I look up her work online and remember they can and must be compatible roles and i feel heartened. There’s no one like her.”

Saelia Aparicio, A Mysterical Journey, 2016

Saelia Aparicio

Chosen by Harry Dougall, director of Public Gallery in East London: “Aside from featuring in numerous institutional shows this year at MIMA, Kunsthaus Hamburg and of course Survey II at Jerwood Arts (where she now has a new must-see mural) her work continues to bewitch me. Touching on inequality, sustainability, and the inherent humour that underpins our fundamental human existence, she creates spaces where we can be anything from plants to concrete, spores to microplastics.”

Hank Willis Thomas, Strike, 2018. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Hank Willis Thomas

Chosen by Ayana V Jackson, an American photographer and filmmaker who questions the visual representation of the Black body in art history: “My artist of the year would have to be Hank Willis Thomas, for being political and prolific in his artistic practice. Particularly his work in devotion to, and in support of, the Wide Awakes project has been defining to the year 2021. His ability to reignite a civil war political movement through the summoning of designers, artists and activists is critical to enumerating the history.”