The best free exhibitions in London right now – get your culture fix and keep your money for coffee

 (Blues for the Martyrs, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed. © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.)
(Blues for the Martyrs, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed. © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.)

Granted, the holiday season is officially over, but that means it’s time for evenings spent hunkered down in pubs, tonnes of stews, and weekends doing indoor-y cultural stuff. And London is, as ever, absolutely packed with things to do — whether that’s exhibitions, people, events and music.

But of course, it can all get a bit pricey. So if you want to have a great weekend seeing some of London’s best culture, but also want to save a few quid, look no further than this guide to the best art shows to see in the city, which are all absolutely free.

Headstrong: Women and Empowerment and The English at Home

Untitled (NRAL 2 from Ray’s a Laugh) , 1994, Richard Billingham (© Richard Billingham / Courtesy Centre for British Photography, London)
Untitled (NRAL 2 from Ray’s a Laugh) , 1994, Richard Billingham (© Richard Billingham / Courtesy Centre for British Photography, London)

A giant new free exhibition space (boasting three floors and 8,000 square feet) primarily dedicated to British photography and contemporary UK-based artists is opening on Jermyn Street this month. The space will launch with two exhibitions: Headstrong: Women and Empowerment, curated by advocacy group Fast Forward: Women in Photography and made up of self-portraits by women, and The English at Home, which will explore the theme of home, drawing from The Hyman Collection (one of the world’s biggest collections of British photography), alongside displays spotlighting individual artists.

Centre for British Photography opens on January 26; britishphotography.org

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

 (Blues for the Martyrs, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed. © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.)
(Blues for the Martyrs, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed. © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.)

Sudanese modernist artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag was part of the influential Khartoum School and was co-founder of the Seventies modernist conceptual group the Crystalists, which was committed to novelty and invention. Her famous paintings, where human and plant forms are intertwined, will be on show as part of this comprehensive survey of her work.

Serpentine South Gallery, to January 29; serpentinegalleries.org

Outernet presents The Summer Palace by Agustin Vidal Saavedra

 (Hand out / Outernet London)
(Hand out / Outernet London)

Dublin-based visual artist Agustín Vidal Saavedra’s work fills this new immersive exhibition space which boasts 23,000 square feet, 360 degrees, and four storeys of 8k screens. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, with eyes drawn towards the ceiling, audiences can expect Renaissance paintings, 3D visuals and animation, which have been created using new technologies such as particle simulations and AI.

The Now Building, to January 31; outernetglobal.com

Interior at Michael Werner

Interior II, 2022 (© Christina Kimeze, Photo: Damian Griffiths)
Interior II, 2022 (© Christina Kimeze, Photo: Damian Griffiths)

This exhibition brings together a group of artists from different ages, whose work responds to ideas of interior lives. Curated by ex-Frieze advisor and Hepworth Museum curator Andrew Bonacina, the sculptures, paintings and ceramics, from contemporary artists including Willa Wasserman, Christina Kimeze and Nairy Baghramian are placed next to work from historic artists such as Édouard Vuillard.

Michael Werner Gallery, to February 3; michaelwerner.com

The Ward by Gideon Mendel

 (Gideon Mendel)
(Gideon Mendel)

In 1993, award-winning South African photographer Gideon Mendel spent weeks in the groundbreaking Broderip and Charles Bell AIDS wards, at the now-closed Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia), focusing on the mostly young male patients, many of whom have since died. “Considering the extreme levels of stigma and fear that existed back then, their decision to allow themselves to be photographed, alongside their lovers, families and friends, was an act of considerable bravery,” he says.

In 2017, twelve of his photographs were exhibited at the Fitzrovia Chapel, the only remaining part of the teaching hospital. Now, to commemorate 30 years since the pictures were first taken, Mendel’s images will be reimagined in a film by the photographer.

Fitzrovia Chapel, to February 5; fitzroviachapel.org

LuYang NetiNeti: at Zabludowicz Collection

 (Courtesy of the artist and Société, Berlin 9)
(Courtesy of the artist and Société, Berlin 9)

For those who enjoy multimedia exhibitions, this major commission from the Zabludowicz Collection could be one for you.

Chinese artist LuYang’s first solo exhibition in the UK will focus on LuYang’s digital avatar DOKU as they explore opposites - life and death, human and machine, past and present - through moving images, installations, interactive games and videos. The artist’s work is described as “darkly humourous” and as “all-consuming in their visual and sonic intensity”.

Spread across the gallery, there’ll be half a dozen mind-boggling videos: a choreographed dance video, a video that was shown at this year’s Venice Biennale, a video about gods, moving image works and animations. Expect a tonne of exciting visuals. This major show comes as the Zabludowicz Collection celebrates 15 years at its spot on Prince of Wales Road.

Zabludowicz Collection, to February 12; zabludowiczcollection.com

In Plain Sight

In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection, 2022 (Photography: Steven Pocock)
In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection, 2022 (Photography: Steven Pocock)

In Plain Sight is all about sight, but despite Wellcome Collection being a science-focused museum and library, the exhibition is as much as the way we see things and the way that people view us, as it is about the physical sense itself. Expect early ophthalmology tools, a now-blind artist’s colour coding, and paintings of eyes, along with contemporary works dotted throughout.

Wellcome Collection, to February 12; wellcomecollection.org

Chris Killip Retrospective

Bever, Skinningrove, N. Yorkshire, 1983 (© Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos)
Bever, Skinningrove, N. Yorkshire, 1983 (© Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos)

Manx photographer Chris Killip was a professor at Harvard for nearly 30 years until his death in 2020, but he is still best known for his black-and-white photographs of inhabitants of Northern towns in the Seventies and Eighties. 140 of these photographs will be on display at the retrospective which The Photographers’ Gallery calls “the most comprehensive survey of the photographer’s work to date”.

The Photographers’ Gallery, to February 19; thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel

 (© Soheila Sokhanvari, courtesy Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery)
(© Soheila Sokhanvari, courtesy Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery)

This exciting upcoming exhibition is the first major UK commission for Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari. Here she paints miniature portraits of both feminist icons and important cultural figures, ranging from 1925 to the 1979 revolution.

Her celebratory portraits will be housed in Barbican’s Curve, which is being turned into an immersive space with geometric shapes hand-painted from the floor to the ceiling, mirrored sculptures with projections from the 2019 film Filmfarsi and a soundtrack composed by Marios Aristopoulos.

Barbican, to February 26; barbican.org.uk

Antoni Tàpies

Antoni Tàpies, Dues urpes, 1989 (Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York)
Antoni Tàpies, Dues urpes, 1989 (Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York)

In honour of the late Catalan artist’s 100th birthday, this exhibition of paintings and works on paper dating from 1989 to 2008 expresses Antoni Tàpies’s interest in spiritual decay and rebirth. It has been curated by Natasha Hébert, the artist’s daughter-in-law.

Timothy Taylor Gallery, to March 4; timothytaylor.com

Image as Protest

Paula Rego; Untitled 8, 2000 (© Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London)
Paula Rego; Untitled 8, 2000 (© Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London)

Joy Gerrard and Dame Paula Rego RA’s work is brought together in this exhibition focusing on women’s rights and protest. Although both artists have been exploring these subjects for decades, Gerrard’s illustrations and Rego’s etchings seem even more urgent after last year’s mass protests for Iranian women’s rights, and the protests in America after Roe v. Wade was appealed. The exhibition will include Rego’s seminal abortion series.

Cristea Roberts Gallery, to March 4; cristearoberts.com

Bloomberg New Contemporaries

 (Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2022. Installation photograph by Andy Stagg.)
(Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2022. Installation photograph by Andy Stagg.)

For the fifth year in a row, South London Gallery spotlights some of the UK’s most exciting up-and-coming artists with this open submission exhibition. The works of the 47 emerging artists chosen were selected by James Richards, Veronica Ryan and Zadie Xa and all respond in some way to themes spirituality, memory and identity.

South London Gallery, to March 12; southlondongallery.org

The Voices of A Tempest

 (Reinis Lismanis)
(Reinis Lismanis)

The Voices of A Tempest was inspired by poet Aimé Césaire’s 1969 play Une Tempête (The Tempest) which turns Shakespeare’s classic on its head, using it as a means to explore colonialism. The exhibition, which has been put together by curatorial platform A---Z, follows this pattern of taking things that are familiar and altering them as a way of provoking ideas: for example, Tarek Lakhrissi makes a sci-fi that focuses on the Queer community and artists Michael and Chiyan Ho use a music video of beloved Cantopop singer Paula Tsui to explore censorship.

Somerset House Studios’ Gallery 31, to March 19; somersethouse.org.uk

Out of the Margins at Whitechapel Gallery

 (Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Manuel Vason)
(Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Manuel Vason)

Out of the Margins: Performance in London’s institutions 1990s – 2010s investigates the way that institutions have engaged with live art over the years and focuses on key moments over a twenty-year period in London. Think underground parties at the ICA, the start of the Live Art Development Agency, initiative from The Roberts Institute of Art, and Whitechapel Gallery’s major 2002 exhibition A Short History of Performance (I, II, III, IV).

While you’re at the gallery also take a look at Zadie Xa’s House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness. The Korean-Canadian artist presents a new body of work exploring themes including folklore, global history, rituals and diasporic identities. Expect sculptures, textiles, paintings, immersive lighting and audio which transform the space into “a dreamscape”.

Whitechapel Gallery, Out of the Margins to January 15, Zadie Xa to April 30; whitechapelgallery.org

Art Now: Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings

 (Courtesy the Artists and Arcadia Missa, L ondon . Photo by Josef Konczak)
(Courtesy the Artists and Arcadia Missa, L ondon . Photo by Josef Konczak)

Art Now is Tate Britain’s long-running exhibition series spotlighting rising stars in the art scene; this time, it’s Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’s turn to shine. Their work uses the traditional fresco painting technique to depict scenes of people, and explores themes of power dynamics and authority in relation to public spaces, architecture and different forms of identity.

Tate Britain, to May 7; tate.org.uk

Yinka Ilori: Parables For Happiness at The Design Museum

 (Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)
(Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)

Yinka Ilori draws on his British-Nigerian heritage to create his accessibility-focused art and design work. He reimagines spaces in cities – often using bright colour patterns and employing geometric shapes – by creating murals, building outdoor gallery trails, installing structures in pavillions and transforming pedestrian crossings.

Now, at the Design Museum, the artist will be showcasing a range of Ilori’s work and inspirations including billboard graphics, Nigerian textiles, photographs, furniture and books. Visitors can look forward to as many as 100 objects all summarizing Ilori’s design inspiration.

Design Museum, to June 25; designmuseum.org