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John Akomfrah Wins UK’s $50,000 Artes Mundi Prize

Video artist John Akomfrah was awarded the 2017 Artes Mundi prize for a work criticizing the “bleak culture of fear and intolerance” that is currently washing over Great Britain. The biennial award, which honors international contemporary artists addressing social and political issues, includes a $50,000 prize.

Akomfrah was recognized for his video work Auto Da Fé, 2016, which draws on the aesthetics of a period drama to frame historical and contemporary migrations. In the piece, he examines eight interconnected migrations spanning the last four hundred years and focuses on religious persecution as the leading cause of global displacement. Examining Auto Da Fé and other works by the artist in the October 2016 issue of Artforum, Michael Wilson wrote, “Against the worrisome backdrop of Brexit in Europe and election-year fearmongering in this country, there’s no denying the continued pertinence of Akomfrah’s interests.”

The artist first conceived of the work in 2009. But Akomfrah agreed in The Guardian that the contemporary political climate made his work feel “even more urgent.” He said, “We are currently experiencing the worst discussion of migration I have lived through, in the forty years I have observed these debates. It feels bleak, it feels intolerant and it feels frightening.” He added, “Most of the ideas in Auto Da Fé were really about saying to people: ‘You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live, because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.’ And that seems to be an insight that has been lost.”

The judging panel consisted of Nick Aikens, curator at the Van Abbemuseum; curator and art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev; Oliver Basciano, editor at ArtReview and ArtReview Asia; artist Phil Collins; Elvira Dyangani Ose, an independent curator and member of the Thought Council, Fondazione Prada; and Ann Jones, curator at the Arts Council Collection. The selection committee comprised three members: Elise Atangana, Paris-based independent curator and judge of the sixth edition of Artes Mundi; Alistair Hudson, director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; and Marie Muracciole, director of the Beirut Art Center.

Akomfrah’s work will be on display alongside works by short-listed artists Neil Beloufa, Amy Franceschini, Lamia Joreige, Násito Mosquito, and Bedwyr Williams at the National Museum Cardiff and Chapter until February 26, 2017.