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Four of the winners and their curator, from left: Nadia Kaabi-Linke from Tunisia, Hamra Abbas from Pakistan, the Iranian-German Timo Nasseri, Sharmini Pereira, the guest curator, and Jananne Al-Ani from Iraq.
Randi Sokoloff Freelancer
Four of the winners and their curator, from left: Nadia Kaabi-Linke from Tunisia, Hamra Abbas from Pakistan, the Iranian-German Timo Nasseri, Sharmini Pereira, the guest curator, and Jananne Al-Ani from Iraq.

Regional art prize expands to five winners

Artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia say the world's most generous art award the Abraaj Capital Art Prize makes works possible that they otherwise couldn't fund.

The world's most generous art award - the Abraaj Capital Art Prize - has just got bigger; or smaller, depending on how you look at it. 

Bigger in that it is, as of this year, being awarded to five artists instead of three. Smaller because by splitting the $1 million prize money more ways, each artist gets a smaller share of the pot. Still, as art awards go, $120,000 (Dh440,784) each (the remainder goes towards covering exhibition costs and administration) is a lavish sum (bear in mind that the winner of the Turner Prize receives 25,000 and each runner up 5,000.

"It just makes it possible to produce this piece," says Timo Nasseri, the Iranian-German sculptor, whose name, along with the four other winners, was announced in Dubai this week. Joining him are Hamra Abbas, a mixed-media artist from Pakistan; Jananne Al-Ani, an Iraqi artist who works with photography, film and new media; the Indian-Pakistani-British film and installation artist Shezad Dawood and Nadia Kaabi-Linke, from Tunisia, who works in a range of media.

"It gives me the opportunity to make it," Nasseri says. "I think this is partly what this prize is about; to allow you to do something you couldn't usually afford." The prize, now in its third year, is given to artists from the Menasa region (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). It has a unique format in that the money is awarded for proposals rather than completed works of art. For its 2011 edition, though, there have been further changes: whereas previously the three artists were proposed by a curator, with whom they continued to work throughout the project, this year's crop were able to apply directly. A single curator, Sharmini Pereira, has been appointed to work with the group.

"We wanted the artists to be able to work with a curator who was independent rather than someone who was also looking out for their own interests," says Savita Apte, chairwoman of the prize. "The real world is about working with an independent curator and not having someone carry you all the way through to the exhibition." For Nasseri, who also applied (unsuccessfully) last year, the new system made it easier to communicate his ideas to the committee. "This really helps," he says. "Last year, I had a special project in mind and you can't always talk about a project with a curator, think it through and change it. For me, this makes absolute sense."

Sri Lankan-British Pereira, who was chosen by a selection committee, comes with an impressively diverse CV. As an independent curator, editor and writer she co-curated the first Singapore Biennale in 2006 and has worked with both public and private institutions including London's Hayward Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Imperial War Museum. In 2005 she started Raking Leaves, an independent publisher of artist's book projects and special editions.

"Sharmini has a terrific track record," says Apte, "and all of them are really happy to be working with her, to listen to her ideas and input. It's great to have another pair of eyes and someone with very concrete, objective advice who hasn't been so much a part of the decision-making process that they lose sight of the end picture." Aside from her obvious curatorial expertise that will be called upon when the artworks are unveiled at Art Dubai in March next year, Pereira also intends to weave into the project her publishing skills with a special catalogue detailing the process through which each of the artists goes to create their work.

"It's going to be repositioned as another kind of space," she says. "Everyone knows that the Abraaj is about the creation of a single artwork. But what happens to make that happen? Everyone talks about the large sum of money involved, but I'm much more interested in knowing how it's used. I think it's extraordinary what these artists are going to do in the next few months and none of that will be reflected in the final work. Each of them are really going to narrate their process through images and I think that brings another dimension to the project."

She is less keen to try to forge links between the works themselves. "I don't see my role as one of enforcing a curatorial theme over everything. I think that's constructing something that's not necessarily there. They're five strong, individual works and I think we have enough to work with to understand that they are just that. The book project will unify the five of them and at the same time emphasise their individuality."

Seeing as the artists are scattered between New York, London and Berlin, and taking into account Pereira's already busy schedule, it would be fair to assume that the next few months won't afford much one-on-one time between curator and artist. Quite the opposite, she says: "The way we'll stay in touch, which is very common between artists and curators now, is by e-mail, Skype and phone. It's about the quality of the conversation. The publication is something that's going to keep us all in touch with one another."

There is little indication, at this point, of what shape the artists' works will take. Abbas will, she says, be working with stained glass. "I'm working with a very old stained-glass production company in Birmingham that was founded in 1885. I'm looking at monuments and trying to create a monument with this one work." Nasseri will only say that his sculpture is related to the region, science and mathematics.

All will, of course, be revealed next year. Until then, it is all noses to the grindstone. Choosing experienced artists, says Apte, is important in order to ensure the challenge is met. "It came about organically that really the people we should be concentrating on are the mid-career artists who've got enough of a track record that we're confident they can pull off what they say they will," she says.

"They have a very true aesthetic vision about what they want, so they're very autonomous and that makes it easier for them to work with other artists as well as a curator because they know themselves so well, and they're very confident about what they're doing." Expanding the number of winning artists to five will no doubt help achieve what the prize set out to do: to give artists from the region an international platform. "It's such a vast area, geographically," says Apte, "that keeping it to three winners was very difficult."

Already, she says, things are changing. "If you look at the past two years we've been operating, and at international exhibitions, you'll see that many more artists from the region have been incorporated - not just those who have won the Abraaj [the fruits of the 2009 Prize were exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design in New York] but in general. "I think a lot of it was about curators who were hesitant to go into certain areas, either because they were told it's not easy or it's politically difficult, and we just made it accessible for them to be in touch with these artists and to see what's coming out of the region. And it's very exciting."

Equally, and perhaps more importantly, prizes such as the Abraaj may encourage young people to choose the arts, says Al-Ani. "In the region there is very little institutional support for artists. What Abraaj is doing is placing a high value on cultural production. One of the significant things that's happened with this prize is that art students or young people here who are thinking about studying art are now able to convince their parents to let them. They can point to the Abraaj and say that artists, too, can make a financial success."

The five completed artworks will be unveiled at Art Dubai in March next year.

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