The Abraaj Capital Art Prize (ACAP) is one of the world’s largest art prizes comprising US$ 1 million given out annually to a set of 3 to 5 artists along with a curator. According to their factsheet the prize is given to an idea or concept rather than a finished artwork, addressing the ever-present grand ambitions of artists to make the kind of art they always wanted but couldn’t hope to realize due to lack of patronage. The ACAP is the only prize specified for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region and was first awarded in 2009.
It is interesting to note that the region’s art while diverse has strains of commonality running through, tackling similar issues of loss, violence, disenfranchisement of divisions of people, post colonialism, historical residue. All these crop up in the artists’ works frequently and even when artists claim personal narratives to be the framework of their practice, it is invariably a collective disquiet that emerges from the heart of the matter. This is a post 9/11 phenomenon. Previously the repression of the Palestinian people was a Palestinian issue, sympathized from a distant by all other Muslim nations. Today the war has expanded and is raging at our front doors and it is only natural that artists are coming face to face with the issue of violence and its peripheral concerns of displacement and loss.
Case in point is one of the 2012 winners of the ACAP, Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji who has created a set of 60 hand-carvings on paper. From a distance, these sheets of paper look completely blank and devoid of imagery but on closer inspection we find lines etched into the paper, representations of scenes from a wedding. It is titled ‘To my brother’ and we discover that they are images of the artist’s brother’s wedding, the brother who was later killed by an Israeli sniper in the First Intifada in 1987. For Batniji, the process of creating these artworks was a painful and angst-ridden reminder of a sibling’s love, but in the larger context, the production refers closely to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and within a still larger parameter, about loss and mourning.
Nat Mueller, the Dutch guest curator of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize explained the premise of the prize that awards the prize to the proposal offered by the artist in anticipation of the artwork to be created. “It’s extremely important that there’s production money because that’s the most difficult thing for artists to find resources to concentrate on a piece they want to make,”.”It allows artists to venture outside their comfort zone and do things they would not normally do.”
It is unclear what kind of leverage the money is supposed to provide and how far the artists actually use it to explore ideas that they would otherwise shelve for lack of resources. Risham Syed has previously used the idea of quilted cartography imbued with post colonial histories in her works. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have created video installations since several years. Wael Shawky has fabricated puppets and dioramas to re-create historical events. None of these artists were stepping outside their comfort zones when they were awarded the ACAP and began working on their projects. So Mueller’s words are irrelevant in the context of the present set of artistic production. But for viewers the output spoke of multiplicity, diversity and heterogeneity within the conceptual ambit of rupture and fission that marks the concerns of artists associated with the geographical boundaries of MENASA . The works kept clear of the intellectual obscurantism of postmodern installation or even ponderous fabrications like 2011 ACAP winner Shazad Dawood’s portentous installation New Dream Machine Project.
One of the most engaging pieces was a collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain vases by Lebanese artist Raed Yassin, which seemed incongruously out of place in a Middle Eastern setting but invoked awe when deconstructed. According to Lebanese tradition, it is customary to record military conquests on ceramic pottery. Yassin travelled to China to have these porcelain vases made with images of his own creation; images of soldiers in fatigue, battle tanks and other war scenes from Lebanon’s long history of violence. The process of the vase making competes with the final outcome because it is as much about mass production as it is about recording history. Yassin is recognized as a successful musician and installation artist and these vases are an enormous shift in his praxis.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video installation was a result of 13 years of amassing and documenting scam emails sent as hoaxes to entice people to give up some money in the hope of gaining a lot more. The situations that the senders describe are pathetic and pitiable until you realize they are completely fictitious, fabricated only to fleece the reader. Ironically, however, the dichotomy lies in the fact that these may well be stories of humanity
Risham Syed’s quilts are a series of meticulously crafted narratives that physically trace the historical paths of trade and conquest in the South Asian region. They are atavistic explorations that remain individual and personal while speaking of collective or ontological impulses.
The success of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize lies in assimilating works by edgy artists who speak the language of art that is not esoteric but identifiable, on-the-ground and demotic without being pedantic. Much of the credit for this focus should be attributed to the particular curator selected each year to guide the artists to fruition, but also to the permanent curators like the regal-looking Savita Aapte, Chair of the ACAP Selection Committee, who keep their vision of the ACAP within sight at all times.