As lockdown lifts, Art of London gives the capital the biggest public art takeover it's ever seen

Michael Armitage, Vanessa Jackson, Isaac Julien, Farshid Moussavi and Yinka Shonibare have created flags, pedestrian crossings and Piccadilly Lights takeovers, designed to inject life back into the neglected city centre.

21 July 2021


As London comes out of lockdown, the Royal Academy of Arts has teamed up with Art of London – a new cultural initiative for the West End – to create the largest public art takeover the capital has ever seen. The Piccadilly Art Takeover is an ambitious project from Heart of London Business Alliance (HOLBA) backed by Sky Arts, Piccadilly Lights, Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London in an attempt to boost the vibrant city centre after it suffered from months of neglect over the course of the pandemic. From today until the end of August, Piccadilly will be decorated with specially commissioned art by five renowned artists – Michael Armitage, Vanessa Jackson, Isaac Julien, Farshid Moussavi and Yinka Shonibare – featured across 30 overhanging flags, 13 pedestrian crossings, and regular takeovers of the 780 sqm Piccadilly Lights. Additionally, the people of London will be invited to access and take part in an augmented reality 10-screen experience and audio sync via their mobile phones, which is a first for public art in the capital.

Bringing this art to life are five of the country’s most inspiring and original artists working today. For the overhanging flags, Michael Armitage, Farshid Moussavi OBE RA and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA have brought their distinct styles together to create a harmonious and welcoming environment for the city centre. “It’s an honour to be able to celebrate the people of London, as we welcome people back to the iconic area of Piccadilly,” says Armitage, whose flag designs celebrate the local key workers near his studio in Hackney. Speaking on his different approach to the flags, Shonibare describes how his flags were inspired by the famed Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, and how it evoked feelings of love for the city. “The statue is shooting an arrow, but I changed this in my design to be shooting a rose,” he says. “The idea of the rose is to express the love to people who want to come to London and how the city embraces them. With this commission we want to embrace and welcome people back.”

As for the 13 pedestrian crossings, painter Vanessa Jackson RA has brought her unique abstract style to the streets, creating an explosion of colour around the busy centre. Intended to evoke feelings of joy and movement, Jackson tells us she’s named her crossing series UpTownDancing. “In the crossings... there’s an interaction in the colours and forms. I was trying to be a little bit electric and to keep it animated because I like to dance, and experience is an animated thing.”


The Piccadilly Art Takeover (Copyright © Heart of London Business Alliance, 2021)

Meanwhile, as for the immersive augmented reality experience, filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien CBE RA has designed the work that will be on display across the gigantic 780 sqm Piccadilly screens. Screening there will be trailers of Lessons of the Hour, a meditative reflection on the life and times of abolitionist, author, philosopher and hero Frederik Douglass. A full 30-minute screening will take place at the end of August. “Looking at the way Douglass wrote about photography and human rights in the contemporary context where we have to rely so heavily on digital representations of ourselves to communicate with each other has convinced me that Londoners – as they venture back in the streets of Piccadilly and meet the iconic screen again – should be greeted by his striking words,” says Julien. Viewers can listen along with their mobile phones by scanning a QR code and watching on their device.

The public “gallery without walls” in Piccadilly is only the first part of the Art of London Summer Season, which sees a three-month programme of activity celebrating art in all its forms spring up across the West End. This will include the Augmented Gallery, various Pop-Up Exhibitions, new additions to the Scenes in the Square statues trail (such as a Game of Thrones-inspired ‘Iron Throne’) and more yet to be announced. Additionally, the installations around Piccadilly are part of the Mayor of London’s £7m initiative Let’s Do London campaign, which intends to boost tourism and visitors of the capital across the latter part of 2021.

“It’s Art of London’s hope, with the launch of the Art of Summer Season, to encourage people back to the West End with original, bespoke and exciting artistic initiatives that celebrate everything the district has to offer, and the resilience and passion that makes it so special,” says Mark Williams, Director of Art of London.

GalleryThe Piccadilly Art Takeover (Copyright © Heart of London Business Alliance, 2021)

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The Piccadilly Art Takeover (Copyright © Heart of London Business Alliance, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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