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East London art exhibitions open this spring: from Whitechapel to Chisenhale Gallery [photoessay]

As exhibitions re-open, we explore the best East London’s art galleries have to offer, from performance art to painting to immersive sculptural experiences.

‘Art is a kind of magic’ says Mark Leckey, the Turner Prize-winning artist. As galleries reopen, there will be many among us breathing a sigh of relief. The pandemic has left us deprived of art’s magic for too long.

Art has always played a central role in the human response to crisis and loss. During the 19th and 20th centuries, physicians linked a person’s psychological health directly to their susceptibility to disease. They believed poor mental health left you vulnerable to pathogens. 

This logic influenced the Health Commissioner of New York’s decision to keep cultural centres open during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Royal S. Copeland argued that keeping these centres operating would ‘protect the public from a condition of mind which would predispose it to physical ills’. 

The galleries were shut this time around, and with good reason. Now that they’re open again, we’ve selected eight of the area’s best exhibitions to visit throughout May and early June.

East London has a brilliant array of museums, galleries and exhibition spaces. In this round-up you’ll find everything from video artwork to immersive, multisensory experiences to sculpture and painting.

Art’s good for the soul, especially after the bruising year we’ve had. Now’s a great time to get out into East London and experience the magic our galleries have to offer.

Ayo Akingbade stands looking out towards the blue sky

Ayo Akingbade

Focusing on themes of urbanism, gentrification, power and resilience, “A Glittering City” is a new exhibition of work by Ayo Akingbade and Duchamp & Sons, Whitechapel Gallery’s youth collective. 

The exhibition will present two video artworks. The first film, Fire in My Belly, explores ideas of place and belonging. Through workshops, screenings and fieldwork, Akinbade collaborated with Duchamp & Sons to produce the film. Six months in the making, Fire In My Belly traces memories of displacement and discusses the meaning of home.

The second film, Dear Babylon, follows three art students and their investigations into the future of social housing when a fictional bill threatens to push working-class tenants out of the capital. Centering activism and filmmaking as constructive modes of resistance, the students interview local residents to record a communal history of their estate.

A Glittering City” will be exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery from 19th May to 15th August 2021. Tickets are free.

An image of artists Yu Ji's foot, a bottle, and a water pipe.

Image © Yu Ji

The first solo exhibition by Shanghai-based artist Yu Ji, “Wasted Mud” uses sculpture to explore the human body in relation to the built and natural environments we inhabit.

Cast in concrete, the torso is a regular motif in Yu Ji’s sculptural work. In keeping with this theme, “Wasted Mud” includes two new concrete sculptures depicting bodies bound together, one contained within plaster and wood. Inspired in part by the birth of her first child, these sculptures explore concepts of human interdependence, transformation and change.

Breeding Bed is a sculpture suspended in mid-air from the gallery walls. A large handmade net, this piece is interwoven with recycled materials from local construction sites in Tower Hamlets, along with objects from Yu Ji’s Shanghai studio.

You can also expect to see ten plastic tubes connected to a self-regulating electronic water pump. This work will ‘slowly leak plant-infused water throughout the gallery space, altering the exterior of her sculptures and seeping liquid into the building’s floor.’

Chisenhale Gallery will resemble a site under construction, sprinkled with debris. “Wasted Mud” encourages us to focus on the spaces that contain and sustain us, exposing our reliance upon one another and the world around us.

“Wasted Mud” will be exhibited at Chisenhale Gallery from 22nd May to 18th July 2021. Tickets are free.

A negative image of a woman's torso by Siena Barnes

Image © Siena Barnes

An artist-run gallery, Lock Up Visual Art (LUVA) is only ever open for one day a month. You can find it in a lock-up garage on the Approach estate, hence the gallery’s name. 

A collaboration between artist Siena Barnes and dancer Amelia Dodds, this show explores the ‘living and writhing’ female body. “Bodily Offerings” is a mixed exhibition of visual art, film, sculpture and live dance.

Barnes’ formally experimental work makes use of a range of new media, such as film and 3D painting. At “Bodily Offerings”, you can expect to see a collection of Barnes’ mixed media works from her most recent collection, The Night Star.

A Yorkshire-based dancer, Dodds is a dancer and photographer exploring the subtleties of movement. “Bodily Offerings” will display a range of Dodds’ photographs; the main event will be well as a live dance performance.

Their first exhibition after lockdown, “Bodily Offerings” is set to take place at James Campbell House, rather than the traditional lock-up. 

This is a one-night-only opportunity- make sure to book your free timeslot in advance!

Bodily Offerings is a free exhibition at James Campbell House on Thursday 27th May, 6-9pm.

The Promise and Patterns of Thrift at The Approach

Textile artworks from Miletic's Patterns of Thrift inside The Approach Gallery

Image © The Approach Gallery

Based above a pub of the same name, The Approach Gallery is showing work by Tom Allen and Hana Miletić until the 19th of June.

“The Promise” is Tom Allen’s first solo exhibition in London, showing new works from an ongoing series of flower paintings. Cast in luminous hues, these richly detailed paintings are inspired by exotic plants from Los Angeles (Allen’s hometown), as well as his international travels and trips to botanical gardens. Painted on small canvases, these carefully controlled works explore plants at their most hypnotic and bewitching.

Reflecting on capitalist modes of production and desire, “Patterns of Thrift” exhibits Miletić’s textile works. The pieces are inspired by acts of ‘care and repair’ that the artist has seen around London. She has been inspired by smashed windows, broken doorways and damaged car wing mirrors taped up with plastic and card. Miletić seeks to recreate these DIY repairs as textile artworks, hand-weaving the fabric in order to ‘further the act of care’. It’s fitting that Miletić’s work is being shown at The Approach, given Bethnal Green’s close historical connections to the textile industry.

The Approach is open Wednesdays-Saturdays, 12-6 pm. Booking not necessary.

A balding man stands before a mirror putting on drag makeup.

Image © Peter Hujar

“Backstage” presents a series of photographs captured by ‘one of the major American photographers of the late twentieth century’, Peter Hujar. These images record performers backstage in New York theatres and nightclubs during the 1970s and ‘80s. 

With many theatres and performance spaces closed because of the pandemic, the gallery hopes to ‘provide a glimpse into the heyday of New York’s bohemia and the much-celebrated underground drag culture that flourished during Hujar’s lifetime’. 

“Backstage” explores ideas of transformation. Hujar’s portraits depict subjects in the quiet moments between performances, applying make-up or standing around in full drag. These are intimate pictures reflecting on and celebrating the nuances of gender.

Hujar tragically died of AIDs in 1983, at the height of the crisis; his work has since been celebrated worldwide by artists and critics like Susan Sontag.

Backstageis exhibited at the Maureen Paley Gallery, open Wednesday-Sunday 11am-6pm by appointment only. 

In black-and-white, three man stand arm-in-arm at the front of a protest

Image © Paul Trevor, Four Corners

Displaying photographs by Paul Trevor, “Brick Lane 1978” is a window exhibition at the Four Corners Gallery. Following the racist murder of Altab Ali in 1978, the East End’s Bengali community organised an uprising that Trevor documented on film. 

There is an audio element accompanying Trevor’s Images. Participants can scan a QR code in the window, allowing them to listen to the memories of those who took part in the protests. 

This exhibition is part of “Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point”, a much wider three-year project. Four Corners is hoping to track down the residents involved in the protests, identify them, record their memories and ultimately create an extensive archive of 1978’s momentous events.

Pop down to the Gallery at any time to see the photographs, hear the testimonies, and find out more information about how to get involved.

Brick Lane 1978” is displayed in the window of the Four Corners Gallery between 4th and 28th of May. 

A skull sitting on a pike of fish bones appears, topped with a fish skeleton

Aquarium © Fergus Granville

From the Western Isles to the East End, the Espacio Gallery is exhibiting work by four artists from the remote island of North Uist. Belonging to the Outer Hebrides, North Uist is an island bearing the full brunt of the Atlantic.  

“Hebridean Spaces” is an exhibit made up of paintings by Marnie Keltie, bookbinding by Corinna Krause, paintings and prints by Fiona Pearson and sculpture by Fergus Granville.

These artists find inspiration in the harsh, rugged beauty of their home. A place dominated by water and wide-open skies, Nort Uist is ‘very varied topographically, with an ancient, rocky, peat- and heather-clad interior, and a fertile green rim around the coasts, fringed with sandy beaches.’

This exhibition was well-received when it came to Dudas St. Gallery in Edinburgh in 2019. The art critic Duncan MacMillan awarded the show four stars in The Scotsman.

Hebridean Spaces” is exhibited at the Espacio Gallery between 24th May-5th June.

© Enni Kukka-Tuomala.

“Is there space for empathy?” is the first UK solo exhibition by Finnish artist Enni-Kukka Tuomala. Constructed at The Nunnery Gallery over the past few weeks, this is an immersive sculptural installation spanning two rooms, encompassing light, sound and visual elements. 

In the first room, viewers are invited to enter Tuomala’s sculptures or else lie beneath them, enjoying the physical experience of interacting with sculpted space. 

The second room offers a multisensory experience of several different mediums: expect an interplay of projections, sculptures, light and sound.

Opening to the public from the 21st of May, this is an exciting exhibition that examines what empathy means in 2021, in a post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-colonial Britain.

Is there space for empathy?” is running at The Nunnery Gallery from the 21st May-8th August

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2 thoughts on “East London art exhibitions open this spring: from Whitechapel to Chisenhale Gallery [photoessay]

  • Thanks so much for these excellent reviews – I’m really looking forward to getting out to some galleries in the next few weeks and now have a good idea of where I’ll be going first.


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