What has it meant to run an international art prize over the past year? As well as a pandemic and Brexit to contend with, there is also the question of whether artist competitions are still fit for purpose – or whether they are a 20th-century phenomenon that should perhaps be laid to rest.
It is a question particularly relevant to Nigel Prince, who took up the role of the director of the Artes Mundi international visual arts exhibition and prize in September 2019. At the time, the biennial award was entering its ninth cycle, with an exhibition and winner announcement scheduled for October 2020.
But Covid forced the organisation to postpone that until this year. A digital exhibition and events programme is now available to view online, with the winner out of the six shortlisted artists being announced on 15 April. If Covid restrictions allow, the exhibition will be shown in three venues in the Welsh capital – the National Museum Cardiff, part of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), Chapter Arts Centre and the G39 gallery.
Other changes are afoot. “In the past, Artes Mundi has been a prize exhibition, but one thing I was keen to do as incoming director was to think about the process of a prize,” Prince says. “Covid has caused lots of changes, but even prior to the pandemic, the notion of art prizes was being debated and contested.”
Much of this stems from the Turner Prize, and the decision by the 2019 shortlisted artists to share it. Prince says that he doesn’t know if the Artes Mundi 9 artists will go down a similar route, but that the organisation will be responsive and will listen. Either way, he believes it is healthy to interrogate the model of a prize and question if it needs to change.
“All cultural organisations, including prize bodies, need to have appropriate resonance and be reflective of times and contexts,” he says. “That goes for the artworks you present, the communities that you work with, the audiences that you engage with and the artists you converse with. All this should be questioned because there is nothing worse than maintaining the status quo because no one can be bothered to question it.”
Negotiating the Covid crisis
In many ways, the organisation has fared remarkably well since coronavirus first caused a UK-wide lockdown in March 2020. Prince had already carried out studio visits with nearly all the shortlisted artists (see artist captions), and had also rejigged the jury process so that members met digitally rather than face to face.
“The fact that we don’t have a building and are a small team has enabled us to be agile, and I haven’t had to furlough anyone,” Prince says. “Financially, our fundraising efforts have been affected because certain trusts and foundations that we were in conversations with froze their giving or shifted their criteria to support emergency measures.
“As a team, we had to have discussions about how we would work through the situation, in terms of our exhibition but also our public programme of events and engagement with audiences, including schools. How could we respond creatively and innovatively while acknowledging the difficulties that everyone was going through and how the pandemic had affected some communities and groups more than others?”
One vital part of the exhibition planning process – viewing new artworks – had to move to Zoom and other digital platforms because of the pandemic. Does Prince think something might be lost as a result? “I genuinely don’t,” he says. “I am feeling confident and enthusiastic about the individual shows and the exhibition as a whole.”
He attributes this in part to the shortlisted artists. The prize’s remit is to identify, recognise and support contemporary visual artists “who engage with the human condition, social reality and lived experience”.
“In one sense, artists are artists and they will engage with the issues that they feel compelled to engage with,” Prince says. “But this year’s shortlist does have an immediate resonance with a number of issues that predated the pandemic, but have been foregrounded even more because of it – issues to do with race, the climate crisis, and inequities and inequalities in society.”
Nearly all the artists have made new work during the pandemic, which is on show in the exhibition, including a photographic piece by the US artist Carrie Mae Weems that pays homage to the civil rights leader John Lewis, who died last July.
“The artists are making artwork, not manifestos, so it’s not as if they are providing an easy answer to these issues,” Prince says. “But they are compelling us as viewers to think about our own situation, how we respond to those issues and ideas, and how we can effect change.”
Another idea that Prince has propelled forward is the idea that a prize exhibition can be a fully formed experience rather than a collection of small solo displays.
“Artes Mundi 9 hasn’t been curated in a way that a group exhibition would typically be curated, and what has emerged is a rich tapestry of themes and ideas that the different artists use in their practices,” he says.
Planning for Brexit and beyond
Though firmly rooted in Wales, Artes Mundi is very much an international organisation. So how can it adhere to what Prince calls “necessary and enforced pragmatism” (whether caused by Covid, Brexit or financial pressures) while continuing to work with artists and others from outside the UK?
“While there is a lot of talk about reigniting relationships with local audiences and communities at the moment, I know from speaking to colleagues across the UK that there is a strong feeling that we mustn’t let go of the international aspect in terms of shared dialogue, learning and listening,” he says.
And he sees new ways of working beginning to emerge, spurred on by the pandemic, as well as an awareness of the climate crisis. “If all of us are working with reduced resources, how do we continue to create impact and excellence that the cultural scene in the UK is known for? I think it’s by supporting each other and sharing certain resources.”
For example, if Artes Mundi brings an artist, international curator or artwork to the UK, it makes sense to maximise the impact of that trip for the individuals and audiences through studio visits, for example, or even exhibitions elsewhere.
This year’s programme of talks and events – which usually take place for an audience of about 150 at National Museum Cardiff – will be held online.
The prize and exhibition have long been the element that Artes Mundi is best known for, but looking towards 2022 and its 10th anniversary, Prince is keen to make the other work the organisation does more visible and give it greater equity.
This includes its second award, the Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award, which purchases works from shortlisted artists to form part of a contemporary collection for Wales.
“It’s an incredibly impressive and staggering legacy for Wales, and something we are thinking about for Artes Mundi 10 is how can we get these works out of the vaults and on display,” says Prince.
Another aspect is the organisation’s long-established relationships with key communities in Cardiff and South Wales. During 2020, this work was expanded further, with a number of digital and physical workshops and skills exchanges, online studio visits and support for Welsh artists, including financial help.
“What became apparent through all of this work and conversations was the lack of voices for Black and non-Black artists of colour in Wales. So in response we have held assemblies and that is taking on a sense of self-agency now,” Prince says.
“But these aren’t happening in isolation – they reflect the work that will be included in the prize exhibition. Ultimately, we want to break away from the idea that Artes Mundi is a biennial event with one year on, one year off. We want a more constant sense of presence and engagement.”
The decision to display Artes Mundi 9 across three venues rather than its traditional one is part of a similar vision.
“Our ambition is that at the time of the exhibition there is a broader ‘festival’ presence across Wales. This isn’t expansion for expansion’s sake – Wales is a small country with an arts infrastructure that is distinct from the rest of the UK, and that presents a real opportunity to reconsider Artes Mundi as not just a vehicle for a prize but something much more.”
A guided walk-through of Artes Mundi 9 is available from 15 March at artesmundi.org
Dineo Seshee Bopape is a South African multimedia artist. Her work tackles gender, politics, race, psychology and sexuality through personal and collective memories. She uses a diverse range of commonplace materials, such as soil, bricks and timber, and combines them with archival images and sound, as well as natural and technological systems, to develop powerful large-scale installations. Her work includes The Stronger We Become, which was shown at the South African Pavilion during the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. Bopape lives and works in Johannesburg.
Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi’s videos and performances examine the boundaries between private and public, an issue that relates to his Japanese heritage. His works include a video triptych, The Angels of Testimony (below), on the second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45. The 2018 work Battlelands features performances by five US combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Prabhakar Pachpute’s multimedia artworks are informed by the working conditions, excavation, unequal social development and land politics of his home city of Chandrapur in India, known as “the city of black gold”. His drawings, animations and use of charcoal have a connection to his subject matter and, as the son of a coal miner, to his family roots. His work includes The Bull (from the series of Sea of Fist), 2019.
The video artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is best known for films rooted in long periods of observation and research exploring the social and political conditions of her native Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Her cultural heritage plays a crucial role in her practice, which focuses on the redevelopment and gentrification of the Puerto Rican landscape and its impact on local communities. An example of this is Otros Usos (Other Uses), 2014. In 2017, she took part in the Whitney Biennial and her work has been presented at Tate Modern, London; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Pérez Art Museum Miami; and El Museo Barrio, New York.
The artist Firelei Báez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and lives and works in New York, addresses issues such as migration and women’s identity. Her exuberant paintings combine symbolic cues that span lavish textiles to wall coverings with colonial-era floral motifs. Báez’s work includes Man Without a Country (aka anthropophagist wading in the Artibonite River), 2014-15.
Carrie Mae Weems, one of the most influential American artists of the 21st century, uses her work to explore family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems and the consequences of power. She puts a spotlight on the American Black experience. Her work features photographs, fabric, audio, digital images and video. Last year she created the series Resist Covid Take 6!. Weems lives and works in Syracuse, New York.