6 artists to celebrate loudly in 2021

Zeinab Saleh, Blue, 2018

Always on the lookout for artists whose work makes you feel part of something special? Here, ZARINA MUHAMMAD – one half of the self-described “unprofessional, irresponsible part-time art critics” responsible for The White Pube – questions what defines an ‘emerging’ artist to reveal the talent she’s championing right now


Who are the emerging artists we’re really excited about in 2021? That’s the brief I’ve been tasked with, but, BUT. There’s a stickiness that I have to peel off before I get going. The thing is, I don’t know what an emerging artist actually is. No one really knows what an emerging artist actually is. I’ve heard Turner Prize-winners in their mid-fifties refer to themselves as emerging artists. Some have started using the term ‘early-career artist’, like that’s more specific (I don’t think it is). I guess the broadest definition is an artist in the first five-ish years of their career, but I don’t want to be held to that like it’s anything to live or die by. In truth, it’s a weird category that’s unnecessarily awkward if you’re an artist who didn’t go to art school, or if you went to art school as a mature student, or if you took time out of art-making to have children – or literally anything that affected your ability to launch into a standard, linear career.

So, with that in mind, let me just take some liberties and readjust the definition a bit. I’m going to write about artists who I wish were celebrated more loudly, or, maybe artists who have the potential to hit The Big Time. Or artists who are at the beginning of a long and illustrious career?!

These are Six Artists Who I am a Fan Of and Who We Have Worked With at The White Pube (and some of them are our friends, too).

Zeinab Saleh, Unleash The Dragon, 2020

Zeinab Saleh

Objects on a table. Ghost, imprint, fluid exchange. What is the actual feeling of an object? What is it screaming at you? What does this object feel like when you grab it with your eyes shut? Zeinab’s paintings contain this spectral lucidity. They feel haunting, or like they’re channeling an aesthetic power beyond the singular, insular self. I would want one on my bedroom wall, but I don’t think that’s where these works belong. I think they ask for more reverence, more clarity. They are not background chatter, they ask to be seen more directly. It is such a skill: to craft an image that’s able to grab onto such a solid and immediate power while never quite committing to figurative completeness. It is a skill I can’t comprehend in its entirety; a skill I can’t adequately express in coherent language because it exists where language and theory end. God, I love it!

Nina Mhach Durban

I am a Nina fangirl. I feel like she makes work that speaks directly to my cavewoman instinct; the aesthetic quadrangle in my brain that’s responsible for remembering color combos and getting me dressed in the morning. She takes this archival imagery of old-school Bollywood stars, Brit Asian iconography, objects, bodies, clutter, that hazy ’70s/’80s/’90s grit. She churns it up with the sensibility of someone who Knows A Lot about contemporary aesthetic theory, the spatial, the conceptual, the sparse. These images become symbols, signs, signifiers; conditioned and weighty with their own theoretical magnitude. It’s clever work. She takes heavy images, then places them into a salad spinner and makes them sing.

Nina Mhach Durban, Pls Hold Me With Care, 2020
Jake Grewal, (Lost Time) As If It Were Written, 2021

Jake Grewal

Jake’s work has this dreamy, romantic quality; a transformative magic that feels special and specific. His drawings feel distant or imaginary, abstraction in feeling rather than in form. Sepia flush, golden-hour light and honey-hued sunsets. Within that haze, Jake situates bodies and articulates their magic against landscape. Painting and drawing are disciplines that are defined by a kind of fiction, which the artist has to assemble within the 2D space of an image. I don’t know if that’s true for every single painter out there in the world, but it feels true in Jake’s work; this absolute fiction of a still image, immaculate assembly between body and landscape, abstracted and distant. Maybe that’s about something deeper and chunkier, like queer gaze or the radical fugitive optimism of speculative fiction. I don’t know, but it makes me shiver.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

As a critic, I have never cared much for the canon or for posterity – art history has never even touched my peripheral concern. But Danielle makes work that I want to be remembered in 100 years’ time. I want them to be referred to, cited. By their own description: “I create work that seeks to archive Black Trans experience. I use technology to imagine our lives in environments that center our bodies… those living, those that have passed and those that have been forgotten.” Danielle is more than an artist in that sense. They draw a circle, hold space, document, materialize and conjure desire and wish into being. They tell you clearly who is being centered, who is meant to be watching and who is in control. They transcend the traditional role of the artist. They do more than position elements, or define them in context; they determine the very basis and terms of their relationship with each other – and with you. They are a wizard and a saint. Art history should bow to them.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, YOU DONT HAVE TO PASS, 2021
Ebun Sodipo, Illustrations for Libations, Attestations, Affirmations, 2020

Ebun Sodipo

Have you ever encountered someone’s practice and just felt knocked over by it? Earlier this year I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. It defines a neat binary; stories can either be spears or containers. One is linear and murderous, singular, endeavoring outwards; one holds the multitude in its tangle, transportive and capable of holding on. One is external: it ruptures the limits set to contain it. One is internal: it is the limit, the surface and the skin. Ebun is an artist and writer, working between film, text, performance, installation, sound. As their work shifts between all of these different formats, I get the feeling that medium is just a liquid, this malleable filter for them to bend and shape to their will. It is sleight of hand, it’s not the real thing you’re meant to be looking at; the magic is happening just out of eyeshot and the frame never shifts to break the spell. Ebun is a practitioner that makes containers; tangled, transportive, internal. Ethereal magic. I feel honored to be witness to it all. Limit, surface, skin.

Seema Mattu, Ethni City, 2021

Seema Mattu

Seema is more than an artist. At times, she is the mythological trickster, an aggressor, a ringmaster. She is never just one of those things. Seema says her practice is a theme park and I’ve never heard anything described so accurately. Sometimes art is this limp, passive thing, engaging with stale discourse that never breaks the cycle of its own internal logic. Seema makes art that is like those sushi conveyor belts. In fact, Seema makes art that requires you to be the sushi, and it whizzes you around like this is a game, but it isn’t. You are the passive object now, you are the passenger. I think she is insane. I think she is before her time. I think it is Seema’s world and we are all just living in it, rent-free.

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown