Eyes on the prize: contemporary art

Giving talented artists the opportunity to break new ground, The Abraaj Group Prize showcases the region’s rich artistic and cultural heritage


Abbas Akhavan and Kamrooz Aram from Iran, Anup Mathew Thomas from India, Basim Magdy from Egypt and Bouchra Khalili from Morocco represent diverse artistic flair from the MENASA region. Together they make up the pool of talent recognized by the Abraaj Group Art Prize, an influential cultural landmark.

Each year a panel of judges, including Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, selects artists according to the proposals they put forward for a new body of work. This year’s curator, Nada Raza from Pakistan, will guide the five artists, each of whom receives a generous US$100,000 (Dh367,000) to fund the development of their ideas.

The spirit of the award is to spotlight a diverse pool of talent and this year’s choices reflect that ethos. Abbas Akhavan's practice ranges from site-specific ephemeral installations to drawing, video and performance. He is known for his ongoing interest in the domestic space as a sphere that encompasses hospitality and hostility. Fellow Iranian, Kamrooz Aram uses iconography and abstraction in a body of work that explores the nature of belief systems.

Meanwhile, Moroccan-born artist Bouchra Khalili, who has a background in cinema, blurs the line between fine arts and documentary. Fellow prize-winner Basim Magdy works in painting, installation, and video with his pieces evoking confusion, absurdity, fragmentation and a sense of poetic failure. The final winner, Indian artist Anup Mathew Thomas, uses the medium of photography to engage with local narratives then go on to ask broader cultural questions.

The Abraaj Group Art Prize was founded in 2008 when the Abraaj Group, a leading private equity manager investing in global growth markets, sought to cement a relationship between art and commerce. The prize has since followed a remit to make sure the world takes Middle East, North Africa and South Asia art more seriously and is a powerful way to lessen the divide between the value of art markets in the developed and developing world.

This focus on bolstering the artistic gravitas of the Middle East is affirmed by Frederic Sicre, Managing Director at The Abraaj Group: “Now in its sixth year, The Abraaj Group Art Prize has grown to be a benchmark for creative excellence in contemporary art practice, and embodies The Abraaj Group’s unwavering commitment to nurturing exceptional talent and empowering potential across global growth markets.”

Previous winners of the award have gone on to achieve further accolades, and are gaining stature in the international arts world. Notable examples include 2010 prize winner Kader Attia who recently opened his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany and 2013 prize winner Iman Issa who is currently showing her work in group show ‘Tea with Nefertiti’ at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.

Exposing new audiences to exciting new artists, the Abraaj initiative is sure to make a splash next March when it unveils the finished works at the Art Dubai fair.