ARTHUR Kleinjan has won the 2021 Aesthetica Art Prize Main Prize and Juliana Kasumu, the Emerging Prize, in York.
The winners were announced in a virtual private view and awards ceremony online, ahead of the public opening of the exhibition at York Art Gallery, Exhibition Square, that will run until September 5.
Both artists’ moving-image works question the world in which we live, diving into some of today’s most pressing topics, from the construction of complex identities to notions of truth and storytelling.
Dutchman Kleinjan’s winning work is Above Us Only Sky, a compelling film wherein a narrator leads the viewer into a magical-realist history bereft of fabrication. The story begins with an investigation into a plane crash in communist Czechoslovakia, when one woman survived after an unlikely fall from the air.
“This event becomes the point of entry to a dense web of seemingly unrelated events that question the logic of chance and synchronicity,” says Aesthetica Art Prize director Cherie Federico.
Technical gremlins with the sound prevented Kleinjan from making an acceptance speech from his home, but he could be seen on screen, cupping his hands in thanks, making heart signs and giving thumbs-ups.
British-Nigerian artist Kasumu’s winning Emerging work, What Does The Water Taste Like?, was prompted by intimate conversations, “questioning the production of identity as it relates to her own personal affiliations with the complex ways where past and present remain in constant dialogue”.
“This engages in interpersonal speculation regarding identity production and sentiments of ‘home’,” says Cherie. “Juliana’s work presents perspectives on the intimacy between kith and kin.”
“I’m honoured, I’m excited, I’m grateful, so excited that the project is being seen in this way, as it’s so meaningful, not just to me, but to my family,” said Juliana, in her digital livestream interview with Cherie, later revealing she happened to be “in York right now”.
What inspired Juliana’s artist film? “My practice has been such a long journey of questioning, asking questions and wanting to resolve my feelings about my identity as a British Nigerian, the disconnection, when I’m here, or in Nigeria, or travelling the world,” she replied.
Kasumu is resolving her journey to her identity, such as the matter of her name, and trying to understand that path as a “second generation child of two immigrant parents”. “Even people who are not second generation will understand it,” she said.
The straightening of hair was central to the film, noted Cherie. “I guess for me, in retrospect, I feel that even in the pain and the frustration, there is also love,” Juliana said. “You will see she [the mother] is nurturing the hair as a labour of love, even though the things that have brought it about are painful. There is a tenderness that can exist, where love can exist, but pain can also exist.”
What’s next for Juliana? “I’m in post-production for a short documentary I made in New Orleans about this amazing woman who runs the Baby Bangz hair salon [at 223, N. Rendon Street],” she said.
Cherie describes the Aesthetica Art Prize as a place of discovery, sculpting the future of the art sector through supporting the most talented new practitioners from across the globe, from the UK to the USA, Italy to Norway, Germany to Brazil, Singapore to Mexico, Taiwan to Australia: “trailblazers who digest the very nature of life in the 21st century, further questioning and making sense of a rapidly changing world”.
In all, more than 4,000 artworks were submitted for the 2021 prize; 125 entrants making the long list; 20, the short list of “new luminaries and chroniclers of our times”, chosen for their originality, skill and technical ability for the exhibition at York Art Gallery.
Cherie says: “Life was complicated before Covid-19, and the pandemic has placed a new set of constraints and challenges on society. The question that runs through all of our minds like a ticker tape is: ‘where do we go from here?’
“The winning works are just that: a call to action. These works are covering themes such as the climate crisis, colonial histories, racism, new technologies and the impact they have on our lives. Both Juliana Kasumu and Arthur Kleinjan draw on personal and universal narratives, with immediate artworks that reflect on the times in which we live.”
Hosted by the York-published international art magazine Aesthetica, the Aesthetica Art Prize was set up 14 years ago to provide a platform for those redefining the parameters of contemporary art.
It has since supported practitioners to gain funding, residencies and commissions, while finalists have featured in exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery, V&A, MoMA, Barbican and the National Portrait Gallery, in London. Winners receive prize money, exhibition and publication opportunities , plus further opportunities for development.
The 2021 shortlisted artists with work on show at York Art Gallery are: Kleinjan; Kasumu; Monica Alcazar-Duarte; Andrew Leventis; Chris Combs; James Tapscott; Alice Duncan and Cesar & Lois Collective; Carlos David; Seb Agnew; Kitoko Diva; Christiane Zschommler; Henny Burnett; Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard; David Brandy; Shan Wu; Cathryn Shilling; Dirk Hardy; Gabriel Hensche and Erwin Redl.
The work spans painting and drawing; photography and digital art; three-dimensional design and sculpture; installation, performance and video art. As with each year, the selected pieces push the boundaries of form and genre, inspiring viewers to see the world in new ways.
“Their works cover pressing themes, from the climate crisis and colonial histories to racist bias and new technologies,” says Cherie.
“The pieces draw on both personal and universal narratives, unearthing the intricate layers of what it means to be alive today. These works are immediate, compelling and highly relevant works reflecting on a new zeitgeist.”
Among the featured artists, Kitoko Diva’s The Black Man In The Cosmos is a poetic and experimental art film created as a part of a video installation, mixing new forms of Afrofuturism, cyberspace imagery and poetry, that addresses the contemporary identity crisis issue among European Afro-descendants.
Henny Burnett’s 365 Days Of Plastic takes a critical look at plastic consumption, moulding a year’s worth of packaging into sculptures that comprise a four by three-metre wall. “The scale of food packaging, recycling and waste disposal is there to be seen in plain view,” says Cherie.
Andrew Leventis’s Freezer Box (Vanitas) and Refrigerator (Vanitas) tap into the material realities of the Covid-19 pandemic. His paintings transform Dutch vanitas into 21st century works that consider the experience of mass panic and how the idea of “stocking up” on items became crucial, almost primal, in a notion to survive.
Monica Alcazar-Duarte’s photography series, Second Nature, looks at how algorithms are used, through search engine technology, to support and maintain biased thinking. “These images are an amalgamation of re-staged moments from stories of discrimination gathered from algorithmic search results on the internet,” says Cherie.
In Gabriel Hensche’s Almost Heaven, the artist performs and dances to a song he does not like, Take Me Home, Country Roads. “The result is unnerving and unsettling; the piece demonstrates a perpetual layer of disconnect that we experience through the lens and daily on the internet,” says Cherie.
Reflecting on running such a prestigious prize, the director says: “I’m honoured to have the opportunity to engage with, and support, so much talent. Every day, I am inspired by these artists. I can only thank them for giving me the opportunity to experience such captivating work.
“Curating this year’s exhibition was infinitely rewarding. The process is rigorous because there are so many talented artists that apply.”
Cherie told the awards-ceremony online audience she ‘could not tell you’ how happy she was that the show would be opening in “real life”. “I’m talking tears of joy,” she said. “It’s just so wonderful to be able to put these works on display at York Art Gallery for the world to see.
“Art is the mechanism by which we can begin to make sense of the world. If there has ever been a time that we need art in our lives, it is now. The world has been permanently changed by the pandemic. We are living history.
“This is the moment that will alter the way we live, communicate, work, play, socialise, travel, experience the joys of culture, forever.”
In many ways, the pandemic has opened up a new set of possibilities, suggested Cherie: “I lament the loss of some things, while other changes, I welcome. It’s the permanent sense of the real and virtual, the ease and unease, presence and absence. I feel so emotional when I see footage of life in 2019; I well up and my brain starts to access the enormity of the situation.
“I work through all the details. The fears, anxiety and worry. These are feelings that are going to take a long time to understand.”
On the one hand, Cherie had to slow down in the three lockdowns; on the other, ironically, she found she had to “speed right up”. “Life was about finding a new balance. It was strange and odd, but I’ve learned so much,” she said.
“Art is the thing that holds everything together for me. It’s what helps me to work through the sense, anxiety and worry. Art reminds me of our humanity, encourages me to take risks and bold steps forward.
“I see this as a chance to improve, to take this experience and do something with it: rebuild a better, greener and equal society. These are noble aspirations, I know, but the opportunity is here and waiting for all of us to act upon.”
Nothing happens without action, asserted Cherie, pointing to the exhibition being a rallying call. “So much of it focuses on the very fabric of our lives and the possibilities that are there for the future,” she said.
“The thing about this pandemic is that it has affected every single person on planet Earth. Just think about that for a moment. We have had this enormous shared experience – and there is something very special about that. In many ways, it means you are not alone, and with that comes great comfort.”
Summing up the exhibition, Cherie posits: “The shortlisted artists speak to each other about what it means to be here, in this moment. The dialogue is robust, urgent and necessary. Race and identity are key themes.”
The Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition runs at York Art Gallery until September 5. Tickets are free but booking is essential at yorkartgallery.org.uk.
The 2021 Aesthetica Art Prize anthology, Future Now: 125 Contemporary Artists, is available to order for £12.95 at shop.aestheticamagazine.com/collections/future-now-collection/products/future-now-2021
Entries are open already for the 2022 prize at aestheticamagazine.com/artprize/submit.