ACAP organizers announce winners of 4th annual art prize

From left: Savita Apte, Raed Yassin, Khalil Joreige, Nat Muller, Risham Syed, Taysir Batniji, Wael Shawky, Fred Sicre.

BEIRUT: Five artists, one curator and a fistful of bright ideas came together for the first time Tuesday, as the organizers of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize announced the winners of their fourth annual award cycle during a ceremony at the Dubai International Financial Center.

The artists Taysir Batniji (from Palestine), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (from Lebanon), Wael Shawky (from Egypt), Risham Syed (from Pakistan) and Raed Yassin (from Lebanon) now have five months, and a budget of up to $120,000 each, to realize the five artworks described in their award-winning proposals.

The independent curator and critic Nat Muller likewise has five months to produce a book, oversee the artists at work, and weave their final projects into an exhibition, which will open to the public during the next edition of Art Dubai, in March 2012.

Established in 2008 by the private equity firm Abraaj Capital, ACAP is one of the only art prizes in the world awarded to speculative proposals rather than already existing artworks or established records of artistic achievement. It is also one of the only awards of its kind with a specific geographical focus on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

ACAP has undergone a number of structural changes since its debut four years ago. In 2008 and 2009, artists and curators were invited to submit joint proposals, and a selection committee picked just three projects for the prize. In 2010, ACAP gave out five awards, and appointed one guest curator to take over the process.

This year’s selection committee – whose members included Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Jessica Morgan, a curator with the Tate in London; and Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai – chose a curator for the first time from an open competition.

“Because the artists and the curator were chosen separately, it’s a very different environment,” says Muller, who divides her time between Rotterdam and the Middle East. “You really have to find what the curatorial engagement could be.

“It’s exceptional that artists can get a prize like this to do projects that would otherwise be impossible to realize. Because they have this budget, the artists can really step out of their comfort zones and try working with different skills. To have a curator follow you along that trajectory, your work takes on a different symbolic value. It pushes the boundaries of what a curator could be.”

Among this year’s winners, Batniji is known for his darkly ironic, black-and-white photographs of Israeli watchtowers, which pay tribute to a similar series by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher (of grain silos, water towers and other types of industrial buildings), while at the same time illustrating the impossibility of doing so (the photographs by the Bechers require a combination of time, patience and security that no Palestinian artist documenting the architecture of the Israeli Army could ever achieve).

For years, Hadjithomas and Joreige have been producing videos, installations and films that delve into the experience of war, destruction and disappearance alongside the fragility of memory, image-making and cinema.

Yassin, an artist and musician who is clearly on a roll, having won the Beirut Art Center’s inaugural Exposure prize in 2009, plays with pulp, pop culture and fictionalized family histories in elaborate bodies of work that move effortlessly from photographs and videos to installations and books.

“One of the most amazing things about the Abraaj Captial Art Prize is that it is new and it is different every time,” says Savita Apte, who chairs the award cycle. “It is literally about allowing the artists to dream and dream big. It is about recognizing the potential that artists have. In a region with an emergent art-world ecosystem, they are all winners. There are no runners-up.”

Another important factor, adds Muller: “It’s not trying to be representative. It’s not a literal representation of the art being made in the region. It’s an artistic, disciplinary articulation of very diverse practices.”

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 05, 2011, on page 16.




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