Now in its fourth year, the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, aimed specifically at the MENASA region, announces its five winners in the lead-up to Art Dubai 2012.
After having submitting a detailed proposal for a work which can be realised with funding of $120,000 from private equity firm Abraaj Capital, the five artists, selected from a pool of 300 applicants, will spend the next six months conceptualising their pieces. After the completed works are presented at Art Dubai in March 2012, they will then enter Abraaj Capital's permanent collection. This year's winners hail from across the MENASA region; Risham Syed from Pakistan, Wael Shawky from Egypt, artist duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige from Lebanon, Taysir Batniji from Palestine and Raed Yassin from Lebanon with guest curator Nat Muller from The Netherlands.
Nat Muller (The Netherlands)
As an independent curator, how is the ACAP project different from previous ones?
With this project, I have had to reformulate my role as a curator because usually you take part in the selection of artists and choice of themes tackled in the show. This time, the proposals are already submitted, which is both difficult and exciting. On the upside, I have worked with four of the five artists selected as winners, which is comforting as I feel like I am not starting from scratch in terms of developing relationships.
You are from The Netherlands, where you are based. Why are you so passionate about Middle Eastern art?
I originally came to the Middle East to research media art in 2003. Middle Eastern art grabs me as I am interested in how a fluid context can influence an artist's practice. So, I started travelling all over the region and found that there were different symbolic levels in the way in which artworks from here tell narratives. They translate an urgency in context which you can't find in Europe. What I find inspiring is that artists from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon create with very little means and against all odds given their difficult conditions.
Each of the winning artist has submitted an individual proposal. Do the concepts also work well together?
I will try to articulate common themes for the exhibition. Luckily, they do work well together and not just as separate entities. The projects share similarities, yet are totally different in medium, execution and scale.
Risham Syed (Pakistan)
How does it feel to win the Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012?
It is exciting because it is something that stays in your in head once you have submitted the proposal. It is great that we have this opportunity where you have a fund that helps different artists realise their individual projects. The thing is, winning ACAP doesn't just reward your proposal with a prize, it also helps you develop your body of work. Through this prize, I am also being introduced to this region and fellow artists, which is another interesting aspect of the process.
You live in Lahore, Pakistan. How does the country's socio-political context inform your paintings?
In my paintings, which also incorporate other media, I tackle themes that are linked to my life, experiences and surroundings in Lahore. My oeuvre is related to topics pertaining to history, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the events that occurred back then are still impacting our everyday lives today, both in Lahore and the rest of the world. I compare the socio-political situation then versus now. I usually come up with a basic idea and eventually, the work takes on a life of its own. The piece for ACAP is based on my previous works.
Will your 2012 ACAP piece be the first time you work so closely with a curator?
Yes, definitely. It will be an interesting process as I usually work on my own without any external input. It is a tight deadline, so as I am producing the work in Pakistan; Nat Muller [ACAP 2012 curator] and I will be communicating via phone and Skype. We will also try to meet in person as often as possible in the next few months.
Khalil Joreige (Lebanon)
How does it feel to win the Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012?
On one hand you are excited but the other, because it is another project on a different scale, you start to think about what you have to sacrifice and how much energy you will need to devote to it. It is a small moment of panic but we are obviously very happy! This project is something that we really wanted to do but couldn't on our own as it requires a big budget. The process will be an adventure as we are using new media and tools.
Joana Hadjithomas and yourself have been working on films as an artist duo for 15 years now. Is there a division of work each time you approach a project?
No. Joana and I are very different people with different rhythms, obsessions and stories that are sharing common fields of research through art. I truly believe in encounters and that someone else can help enlarge my own potential.
You consider yourselves researchers and your oeuvre tackles themes pertaining to your homeland, Lebanon. What are some of the questions that you are hoping to answer through your feature films and documentaries?
Most of my work is based on Lebanon and deals with how I can deal with my own presence there. Through the films, I try to find a place where I can reconfigure myself in the belief that I am actually there. It is all about context. For example, in our 2008 feature film Je Veux Voir (I Want to See), we place French actress Catherine Deneuve at the Lebanese-Israeli border. We are posing questions such as 'How can you believe in such fiction?', 'What makes you believe in it?' Creating a specific scenario within a certain context can either be believable or not. It is a question of narration. We are hoping that each time we produce a piece, it creates a setting where people think it can actually happen. It is both art and cinema.
Wael Shawky (Egypt)
What themes are you currently examining within your work?
I am interested in history. I like to explore the way in which we write and document historical events. My work also concerns the idea of cultural hybridity and how different systems in various societies can work together. For example, I examine how a society can move from one stage to another such as the development of an agricultural society to one which is more modernised and technologically proficient. I spent seven years of my childhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. My experiences during this time continue to permeate my work such as the idea of modernity for a predominantly Bedouin and Islamic society. I am not interested in the end result of this development because it is continuous; what fascinates me and what I want to depict is the moment of transition. It is a great pleasure to be chosen for the Abraaj Captial Art Prize because it is taking place so close to home.
What is your artistic approach and how is it influenced by the diverse media you use?
I work with video, installation, drawing and performance. I believe that each media has its own limitations; not every medium can precisely capture the theme I would like to transmit. I am working more and more with video because I am interested in the dimension of time and how it interacts with the public and its interaction with the public. However, for Abraaj I chose to work with installation once again alongside the theme of history and how the public deals with specific historical moments.
What do you want to impart to the audience through your work?
I am very happy that there is a prize like Abraaj in the Middle East. Most of my time is spent in the international art scene abroad and I rarely get a chance to partake in an event in the region. I cannot compare what I make in Egypt to what is created in Germany or in the US. Making a work specifically tailored for Abraaj is important to me because it is taking place so close to home. Exhibiting it in Dubai allows me to best communicate my work in the Middle East from where it was made and from where I come.
Taysir Batniji (Palestine)
What is your artistic approach and how is it influenced by the diverse media you use?
My work is open to all media. I do not limit my creativity to specific media because I believe all disciplines allow me to express my ideas. As a Palestinian living between Gaza and France, my work is greatly influenced by the current context of my homeland.
Personal vs. Collective: what do you want to impart to the audience through your work?
I am trying to find a connection between my life as an artist and the present situation in Palestine. At once a personal as well as a collective experience, many of my projects use Palestine as a departure point. It is personal because I experience the situation on a daily basis and it is collective because what is taking place in Palestine has affected a multitude of people. Through my work as in my life, I am consistently moving between two worlds and two ways of life. The personal is affected by the collective. We are living in a different context in Palestine. It is a very contradictory situation but it is inspiring at the same time for my art because it is has a deep human dimension.
How does it feel to be a recipient of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize?
For me it is a really great opportunity considering the recognition of the award and the possibility that the work gives me now to be able to do my work. The Prize also provides me with financial help in order to be able to create. I have many other projects the same time so it will be a very busy period over the next few months. I feel a lot of pressure but also great pleasure in winning this award.
Raed Yassin (Lebanon)
What is your artistic approach and how is it influenced by the diverse media you use?
I work with various media such as video, film, text, music and performance. My background in theatre and music has greatly inspired my work, which mainly revolves around the theme of the development of the cinematic image through mass production with a particular focus on pop culture. I observe pop culture in the Arab world and how it is affected by political, social and economic events especially from the 1960s until the present.
What current themes are you examining in your work?
I am currently finishing a film I have been working on since 2008 about Cairo. Egyptian films and music have been a main theme in my work for a long time. I feel a special relationship with Egypt because it has the biggest film industry in the region. Through the examination of current pop culture in the Middle East, we can gain an understanding of current trends. I think an artist's role is to create a spotlight on certain events so that they can be re-examined and remembered. My work is not political but I think art is closely connected to politics, especially in the Arab world where politics is so closely tied to everyday life.
How does it feel to be a recipient of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize?
It feels fantastic! It is wonderful to have such an opportunity because it allows me to access to the material and time to produce a powerful work of art.
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By Rebecca Ann Proctor and Tala Chukri.
  • ACAP 2012 WINNERS ANNOUNCED ACAP 2012 winners Raed Yassin, Khalil Joreige, Nat Muller, Risham Syed,Taysir-Batniji and Wael Shawky.