The Best of 2021: Our Top 10 Exhibitions Around the World

This year we had to particularly lean on our contributor network to get a sense of what was happening around the world in terms of art exhibitions. We don’t have the breadth that we have typically had in previous years because of travel restrictions and lockdowns, but as is our habit, we have the depth. We have done some considered looking and writing about these exhibitions and make this list not only to discuss what is the “best” in terms of chart toppers around the world, but, more pointedly, what we found to be worth thinking about and discussing and taking to heart. —Seph Rodney, Senior Critic

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1. War Inna Babylon at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle For Truth and Rights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, installation view (image courtesy ICA London)

July 7–September 26

Curated by Tottenham Rights, Rianna Jade Parker, and Kamara Scott

This once-in-a-generation show shone a light on the long and often ignored stories of Black British defiance, from African Liberation Day in Birmingham in 1977, to the nationwide uprisings following the killing of Mark Duggan in 2011. Charting a journey of community resistance to state violence, a complex history was distilled for audiences both new and well-informed, maintaining a sense of urgency. War Inna Babylon was timely and necessary; with eager audience members returning for multiple visits and a regularly sold-out program of events. —Aurella Yussuf

2. The Torlonia Marbles. Collecting Masterpieces at the Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces exhibition at Villa Caffarelli, Rome, Italy, gallery 7 (Giustiniani Collection); left: crouching Aphrodite, (1st c. CE) (no. 73); right: crouching Aphrodite (1st c. CE) (no. 74) (image and captions by Daniel P. Diffendale for Hyperallergic) Credit: Image and captions by Daniel P. Diffendale for Hyperallergic

October 14, 2020 – September 1, 2022

Curated by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri

The Torlonia family collection of ancient sculptures is the most important one still in private hands, and it’s full of astonishing treasures like the Hera Giustiniani and the so-called “Old Man of Otricoli,” all of which have been unseen by the public since the 1970s. The display, by David Chipperfield, is frankly ugly and the exhibition is crammed into a surprisingly awkward series of small rooms. Some of the pieces, especially the sarcophagi, seem to have been bleached rather than merely cleaned. Despite these limitations, this taster of the full collection leaves the viewer wanting more, and the excellent catalogue (available in English, a rarity in Rome) describes how the nouveau-riche Torlonia family, instead of forming their own collection according to their own criteria of taste, built a “collection of collections” by buying up the entire inventories of other noble families. Unmissable. —Anthony Majanlahti

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: Ebony G. Patterson, “…three kings weep…” (2018) (© Ebony G. Patterson, courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, photo © AGO)

September 1, 2021–February 21, 2022

Curated by Julie Crooks

In 2019, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) acquired the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, a trove of over 3,500 historical images and one of the largest of its kind from the region. This exhibition positions 300 of these photographs — ranging from late 19th-century sand and sea tourist views to posed early 20th-century studio portraits — alongside works by modern and contemporary Caribbean artists like Frank Bowling, Paul Anthony Smith, Sandra Brewster, and more. But this isn’t your stereotypical didactic survey of the colonial archive, thanks to a spacious and fluid presentation of paintings, photography, and video works aligned in their rigorous commitment towards self-representation, post-Emancipation and beyond. Curator Julie Crooks astutely positions works with shared technique and subject — like the use of reverse motion in video installations from Ebony G. Patterson and Nadia Huggins, each centering the vulnerabilities of young Caribbean Black men. Fragments of Epic Memory, then, not only conjures the Caribbean diasporic past, present, and future, but is uniquely attuned to Toronto’s legacy as an artistic epicenter for its diaspora. —Rea McNamara

4. Lokame Tharavadu, multiple venues across Alleppey, India

Visitors check out the exhibits at the Port Museum, one of the venues for Lokame Tharavadu (image courtesy the organizers) 

April 18–December 31

Curated by Bose Krishnamachari

Curated by Bose Krishnamachari, the first-ever edition of Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family) features over 3,000 works by 267 artists who trace their roots back to the coastal town of Alappuzha in Kerala, India. The show explores a variety of artistic perspectives, across mediums and styles, on home, gender, identity, belonging, and the universal spirit of humanity in the midst of a global pandemic. A celebration of the diversity of artistic practices coming out of Kerala, it has introduced art and aesthetics to a small town in South India by thinking locally and acting globally. —Rohini Kejriwal

5. Our North Is the South at Gomide & Co., São Paulo, Brazil

Lygia Clark, “Relogio de Sol (Sundial)” (1960) (left) and Huari Culture, “Tunic (Cross motif)” (circa 800 AD) (image courtesy Gomide & Co.)

August 21–October 23

Curated by Tiago Mesquita

A compact yet prodigiously researched and stunningly produced show, Our North Is the South, at Gomide & Co. in São Paulo, paired Amerindian artifacts dating back to 200 AD, mostly from Pre-Colombian Huari Culture, with Latin American modern and contemporary art to underscore the latter’s indebtedness to Indigenous traditions. Curated by Tiago Mesquita, with catalogue texts by Mesquita and Paul Hughes, the show featured Indigenous textiles alongside modernists such as Joaquín Torres Garcia, Mira Schendel, Rubem Valentim, and Lygia Clark, who renewed modernism by reinventing artisanal materials and, at times, directly abstracting Amerindian forms, echoing their forceful geometry, graphic line, and rhythmic sensibility. Works by contemporary artists, e.g. Gabriel Orozco, Magdalena Jitrik, Pedro Reyes and Marioly Rosas Figueroa, revealed the continuing evolution of this confluence. —Ela Bittencourt

A selection of excellent Italian Old Masters on show at The Queens Gallery (photo by the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

May 17, 2021–February 13, 2022

Curated by Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Isabella Manning.

The Royal Collection consists of around one million items of painting, furniture and applied arts spread throughout Britain’s historic palaces and properties. Of these, the cream of the fine paintings are usually held in Buckingham Palace’s Picture Gallery in archaic one-above-another settings, visible by tour for only part of the year. Now that the gallery is being renovated the public have an unmissable opportunity to view exceptional Dutch and Italian Old Master paintings including sublime Vermeers, Rembrandts, Canalettos and Van Dycks at eye level and close up in a gallery setting and is not to be missed. It is a relatively small exhibition, but every piece a stunner. —Olivia McEwan

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7. Liquid Ground at Para Site, Hong Kong

Installation view of Liquid Ground (image courtesy Para Site, Hong Kong, 2021, photo by Samson Cheung Choi Sang)

August 14–November 14

Curated by Alvin Li and Junyuan Feng

“Intensive terraforming” and repercussive displacements informed this timely group exhibition curated by Alvin Li and Junyuan Feng. Anchored in Hong Kong, with works assembled in an archipelago, the show dug into real and speculative land reclamation projects. Centre for Land Affairs, an anonymous, newly founded artist group, installed an old Mac, which contained files on the New World Development’s projects in the New Territories, alongside personal items and artworks by evicted villagers. (Follow the thread and you’ll discover that New World runs the K11 Foundation and museums, managed by Adrian Cheng, who is on the board of MoMA PS1: an example of the artwashing practices that populate Hong Kong.) Gary Zhexi Zhang investigates through a video simulation the story of Poyais island, a fictitious colonial utopia sold to British settlers as an elaborate scam, in the 1800s. And inside a wooden structure built for the show, which functioned as a viewing room as well as an island, Yi Xin Tong looked at the mythical dragon-like jialong as a metaphor for the changing ecologies and spiritual roots of Southeast Asia.  —Ysabelle Cheung

8. Rosângela Rennó: Small Ecology of the Image at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo Museum, São Paulo, Brazil

Rosângela Rennó, “Erasure # 2 (Table),” (detail) (2005) (photo by Ela Bittencourt)

October 2, 2021–March 7, 2022

Curated by Ana Maria Maia

The Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó has been obsessively studying images and their relationship to truth and dominant narratives for over 35 years. Her largest survey to date, Rosângela Rennó: A Pequena Ecologia da Imagem (Small Ecology of the Image), comprises 130 photography and video based works. From spectral, family-album portraits of soldiers in uniform that Rennó obscures with red tint, to granular images of street protesters zoomed in on individual figures, to forensic photographs capturing spatial and temporal correlations in crimes scenes that Rennó scrambles by superimposing a grid over them to disrupt their sense of continuity, the artist questions ways in which images are claimed to have a neutral, indexical relationship to the real, and are used as such in criminology and police surveillance. The critique that drives Rennó’s practice is that the image, an instrument of seeing, can induce empirical blindness — an idea embodied by her Blind Wall series, in which boarded-up photographs are embedded in foam and Lycra, in a sculptural form that finally reveals nothing but impermeability. —Ela Bittencourt

9. Chaïm Soutine / Willem de Kooning, painting embodied at the Orangerie Museum, Paris, France

September 15, 2021–January 10, 2022

Curated by Claire Bernardi and Simonetta Fraquelli

The story goes that in the mid-20th century, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. But how exactly did it happen? Part of it was simply American artists seeing European artists’ work. A tightly curated exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie charts Willem de Kooning’s encounters with the work of Chaim Soutine and its profound influence on his style. The exhibition is a refreshing example of how exhibitions can combine an exploration of artists’ biographies and their work. It also just contains some great paintings: bodily, gloopy, visceral. —Naomi Polonsky

10. The Museums and Art and Cultural Institutions that Mounted Online Shows This Year

January 1–December 31, 2021

Curated by Sundry Curatorial Professionals

This year I witnessed several institutions’ presentation of work on digital platforms, taking advantage of the circumstance of having a large part of the world’s population prevented from having in-person viewing experiences. This situation was both boon and doom. Yes, museums were often able to translate three-dimensional artwork into images that conveyed some of the nuanced and sotto voce meaning of the work. But, quite often, too often, the online exhibitions approached their task precisely in this way: as an issue of translation. The wisdom that we’ve come to is realizing that the digital, online realm is its own universe, with its particular modes of visitor engagement, methods of conveying information, and means of exciting the senses. This space is actually a space of possibility, not of exile. Our art institutions are beginning to learn this and move (somewhat slowly) towards making this space extend and deepen our experience as visitors. —Seph Rodney


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