Art's BIGGEST prize!

The recipients of the world’s richest art award as they get ready to unveil their winning exhibits to the world


The Abraaj Capital Art Prize was established in 2008 to create an international platform for artists from the Menasa (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region. With a total fund of US$1million (Dhs3.7million), it is the world’s largest art prize, but while this is enough to ensure the project garners headlines, what sets it apart is its approach. Abraaj awards are for proposals of works by individual artists put forward by their curators rather than completed works. Winners are, in a sense, commissioned rather than merely awarded, with the works to go into Abraaj’s private art collection after their inaugural unveiling at Art Dubai.

Walk On The Sky. Pisces

Zoulikha Boubadellah and Carol Solomon
Zoulikha Boubadellah is still working on the finer details of her Abraaj entry – a meditative installation entitled ‘Walk On The Sky. Pisces’ – in her studio in Paris when we speak. Her curator Carol Solomon, will be arriving from the US in a week’s time to oversee the trial assembly of the work, and while Boubadellah (below left) sounds quietly confident that it will go well, it’s been a less than straightforward process. ‘The medium was [originally] about glass,’ she explains, ‘but it’s not anymore because the glass that I want to work with doesn’t support the heat that will be generated in the space. I’ve had to change it to [a highly polished, reflective steel].’

At its simplest, the work nods to the wonders of ancient Persian astronomy and Arabic legend (namely the glass floor that was once said to be placed before King Solomon’s throne and which, the story goes, the Queen of Sheba was convinced to have been made of water).

Boubadellah was, she says, inspired by key sources, including 10th century Persian astronomer Abd al Rahman al-Sufi. But it is the work’s recurring symbol – the polygon star – that is most significant. The artist talks of its importance, not just within Islamic art, but as a symbol ‘of the interaction of cultures’ – it appears, she notes, not just in Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish design.

‘Walk On The Sky. Pisces’ expresses the wish for a kind of overarching inclusiveness that’s typical of Boubadellah’s work. (When we ask her why she chose Pisces as the constellation to represent, her initial oh-so-simple response – ‘Because the event is going to be in March’ – is followed by the deeper revelation that the more she looked into the sign – represented by two fish – the more she came to understand that ‘for all religions it is symbolic of good luck’.)

Born in Moscow, raised in Algeria and now living in France, Boubadellah is no stranger to the nuances surrounding issues of cultural identity, but picks and chooses, she says, influences and inspiration as and from where it suits. With characteristic breeze, Boubadellah notes that such an approach is typical of contemporary artists. ‘Today artists are definitely global,’ she affirms, ‘because we travel and we are made by what we can see or influenced by all that we can see.’ In her work, she likes to ‘mix spaces’ that are traditionally seen as being in opposition, both personal and cultural, proclaiming that ‘there is no opposition… something isn’t opposite to another [thing] if both accepts that the other exists.’ Spoken like a true child of the global revolution.

Rhyme And Reason

Nazgol Ansarinia and Leyla Fakhr
Seen from a distance, Nazgol Ansarinia’s winning submission looks like a beautiful example of a classic Persian carpet, rich with colour and swirling, recurring pattern and shape. But look closely and there’s a whole other world to explore within its frame.

‘That’s the idea behind it,’ confirms Ansarinia (above right), speaking by phone from Tehran. ‘At first you think you see what you’re used to, but when you look closely, you discover all these contemporary relations and images and things from the everyday.’

What initially appear to be merely decorative flowers, on closer inspection reveal themselves as scenes from local Iranian life – men, women and children queuing, chatting, playing and driving, all within the looping spirals of the carpet’s pattern.

Is Ansarinia suggesting that people on the outside would do well to cast aside assumptions and take a closer look (she has noted that within ‘the Western context’, Persian carpets have become a symbol of ‘the romantic East’)? ‘Yes, absolutely,’ she affirms. But she is equally adamant that she’s not ‘trying to send any messages’ – the piece is an investigation into self-identity rather than cultural identity per se.

‘My work is always about me trying to understand something about my surroundings and context and my position within that context’, she explains. Born and raised in Iran, Ansarinia studied and worked in London and the US before returning to Tehran from New York four and a half years ago. ‘You have all these encounters where people start to ask you very simple questions about things that you didn’t really consider before because you were among a group where your identity was clear,’ she says. ‘It therefore becomes something that you’re very conscious about, almost by default.’ It’s since moving home, she notes, that she’s become increasingly interested in different aspects of her cultural background and cultural heritage, more inclined, to ‘re-appropriate and reuse this material’ after spending so long away.

The move into textiles is relatively new: before her current Pattern series, Ansarinia’s main focus was a project involving language. ‘I’m still very interested in that,’ she reveals. ‘I think that there’s a direct relationship between that and the Pattern series because… I think you can see [the concept of patterns] in language as well.’

The Abraaj Prize has given Ansarinia the opportunity to realise a project that might otherwise – due to the costs involved in producing a traditional, handwoven carpet 2.5mx3.5m in size – have had to remain very firmly on the drawing board. Working with her curator, Leyla Fakhr, has been very much a collaborative experience. The pair have known one another since working together at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art some years ago, when they bonded over the shared experience of expats returned home. ‘We were mystified by Tehran,’ notes Fakhr, ‘as a place that is filled with juxtaposing scenarios and events that are so intertwined within each other that they are sometimes easily missed.’ It’s a mystification that’s proved to be fertile – and very beautiful – ground for both.

Strange Space

Kutlug Ataman and Cristiana Perrella
That Time Out’s initial attempts to speak with video artist Kutlug Ataman are bedevilled by misunderstanding over the differences in our respective time zones seems oddly fitting for an artist whose works often hold a curiously displaced sense of time and locale.

‘Strange Space’, the recorded performance piece that Ataman will be showing in the inaugural Abraaj Capital Art Prize, is filmed in Erzincan, a small city set high in a north-eastern mountain plateau of his native Turkey, which Ataman describes as extreme, both in terms of its physical environment (scorching hot summers, icy winters) and its war-torn history. But today, Ataman says, the area is besieged by another kind of attack – that of modernity.

‘It’s a really ancient city,’ he explains. ‘The history of it goes straight back to Neolithic ages. Suddenly in my own lifetime it’s changing drastically.’ There is new building and construction and all the social problems that such dramatic changes can bring. ‘I had my childhood in that region,’ he continues, ‘so I know it very well.’

Ataman’s approach to such an evolution is far from simply recording the changes he sees. Rather, ‘Strange Space’, is inspired by what Ataman calls ‘a recurring theme from Middle Eastern folk tales and popular geographical oral tradition’ in which the hero, blinded by his love for the heroine, wanders through the desert trying to find her, only to burst into flames when they meet – a metaphor, according to Abraaj’s pre-publicity blurb, ‘of the encounter of modernity and tradition, of their reciprocal attraction and the trauma this attraction may cause.’

When we finally catch up with Ataman by phone at the artists’ retreat he is staying at in Banff, Canada – a much-needed chance to regroup after his mountain shoot (‘I can’t begin to describe it to you,’ he sighs, ‘like the most difficult production of my entire life.’) – Ataman is less adamant. ‘It’s not finalised yet,’ he says, explaining that it’s in editing that ‘a lot of my work takes shape’. All he knows is that ‘it’s all about disappearing and self-erasure and then recreating yourself… it’s like being lost in a kind of unknown space and trying to define that space.’

‘Strange Space’ is just one of seven proposed video works that will eventually make up a series entitled Mesopotamian Dramaturgies, which he has worked on with his Abraaj curator Cristiana Perrella for two years. ‘The collaboration with Kutlug started when I invited him for a residency in Rome [where she is curator of the Contemporary Arts Programme at the British School] to do some research for his project… about the encounter/clash between Eastern and Western culture,’ she explains. Two earlier parts of the series will be shown in Rome at the end of this year. Art Dubai visitors, however, will be fortunate enough to witness the first ever public staging of ‘Strange Space’ here next month.

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