Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

Turner Prize: Lawrence Abu Hamdan gives voice to the voiceless

The Jordanian artist brings Syrian suffering to the forefront of consciousness

Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, and Oscar Murillo pose for a photograph after being announced as the joint winners of Turner Prize 2019. EPA
Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, and Oscar Murillo pose for a photograph after being announced as the joint winners of Turner Prize 2019. EPA

The annual Turner Prize rarely fails to spark controversy. From Tracey Emin’s unmade bed to Damien Hirst’s sheep in formaldehyde, it is often seen as a promoter of the artists – often edgy, controversial or shocking – whom we should and will be talking about for years to come. This year’s prize was no different. The Turner Prize winner is once again one of the most talked-about topics in the art world and beyond, largely because there isn’t one winner but four. In an unprecedented decision, the four nominees agreed that in a time of great strife around the planet, they would rather share the prize as a collective to send a message of togetherness to the world. Their surprise move was unanimously backed by the judges and sparked wonder – and some schadenfreude – in critics.

On the surface, the four might seem to have little in common. There were even questions about whether the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the Beirut-based Jordanian artist who focused on prisons and regime torture in Syria for his sound installation, was more documentary than art. His artwork was vastly different to that of Helen Cammock, who focused on the role of women in the civil rights movement, Oscar Murillo, who explored the identity of the marginalised and Tai Shani, who delved into stories of women free of patriarchal limits for her feminist narrative. Yet despite their different inspirations, all of them speak to those who fight to have their voices heard, which makes their selfless act somewhat less surprising. In a letter to the judges, they wrote: “At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity - in art as in society.”

Their letter speaks to a greater truth: that art can begin a dialogue and articulate the human experience, offering a powerful means to project lesser-known stories onto a wider stage, or elaborate viewpoints that are either on taboo subjects or difficult to express. The suffering within the Syrian regime’s prisons was unspeakable, hard to fathom or imagine, yet thanks to Abu Hamdan’s painstaking work based on interviews with former prisoners at Saydnaya, where as many as 13,000 people were executed between 2011 and 2015, their horrifying experience has been shared with a wider audience and reminded the world of long-forgotten victims as the nine-year war enters a new phase. Indeed, Abu Hamdan calls himself an “artist and audio investigator” who explores the “politics of listening” and his audiovisual installations have the power to transport and inform observers in a way that perhaps a news broadcast cannot.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘Rubber Coated Steel'. Courtesy Saudi Art Council
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘Rubber Coated Steel'. Courtesy Saudi Art Council

There is another reason to celebrate this year’s prize. Abu Hamdan is the first Middle Eastern artist to win the award, bringing the three countries and the region he represents to the forefront of people’s minds, at a time when there is strife in each of them. He will undoubtedly have personal experience of the conflict and divisions the artists wrote of in their letter. That makes their symbolic gesture even more potent and poignant.

Abu Hamdan’s thought-provoking work could now encourage and inspire a generation of young Arab artists to follow in his footsteps and realise their stories deserve to be told, through whatever medium they choose to tell them. Above all, it gives hope that the power of art can make the world sit up and take note of the stories that count.

Updated: December 4, 2019 09:39 PM

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