Adel Abidin and the $100K Ithra Art Prize

The Ithra Art Prize is one of the most substantial available anywhere in the world, with the winner getting $100,000 to realise a proposal that will join the permanent collection at Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the principal driver of the creative economy in Saudi Arabia. This year the fifth Ithra Art Prize has been awarded to the Iraqi-Finnish artist Adel Abidin for a wall-sized installation titled ON which will explores the relationship between history, memory, and identity.

“As I delve into the intangible aspects of history, I am confronted with the challenge of scarce reliable archival sources,” says Abidin (right). “This challenge is especially present in the context of Arab history, where much remains shrouded in ambiguity, allowing for a broad range of interpretations and augmentations.” And for him, that was particularly highlighted with the Zanj rebellion (869-883CE) in Southern Iraq.

Supposedly the Zanj were slaves who had originally been captured from the coast of Africa and brought to the area to work on reclaiming land, but in fact it’s by no means clear that slaves were the only or even the predominant participants. Abidin says that he saw how the reality of the events had been interrupted and modified depending on the perspectives of those writing history, and that’s the theme of ON – the installation “highlights the fragility of history and the organic nature of memory”.

Adel Abidin was born in Baghdad (1973) and currently resides between Helsinki and Amman. Appropriately enough, his degrees come from both countries – a BA in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and an MFA in Time and Space Art from Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts. As the latter suggests, Abidin works across multiple mediums, primarily video and installation; he typically likes to deploy humour, taking an action, symbol or object out of context to create metaphors for complex relationships – his excellent Meem show last year had himself as the protagonist in a series of music video clips that used an absurd and ironic visual language that attempts an understanding of the cross-cultural self that was created by his move to Finland. “I work with the themes of identity, power, fear, clichés, slippages, and uncertainties in language by manipulating well-known pop song lyrics once used to express love, hope, and dreams … The rearrangement of these lyrics illustrates a harsh yet honest tool that represents what we hide or are afraid of making known.”

He’s an interesting, reflective artist with a distinctive view of the world. That has been on show at some of the great international events and some top exhibitions; he represented Finland at the 2007 Venice Biennale in 2007, was in the Iranian Pavilion for the 2015 Biennale, and showed at the Guangzhou Triennial and several museums in the same year. He’s been notably busy for the last 15 years or so, including (some of magpie’s favourites) THEY ASKED ME TO CHANGE IT AND I AGREED (2022), a neon installation on the façade of Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art; Al-Warqaa, a suspended light-based sculpture that pays homage to students stoned to death by religious extremists in Baghdad – this showed at Lawrie Shabibi in 2013; and Archive (2018), a full-size 3D installation of shelves of files displayed in a darkened room with the lights flickering on and off, representing a kind of graveyard of information about people that comes alive only when someone thinks of some information they might need.

magpie has long been a fan of Abidin’s, so it was a pleasure to ask him about his world-view and the specifics of the Ithra Prize win.

magpie: Congratulations on winning the Ithra Art Prize. How do you find being in Finland? It must be a significant contrast to your upbringing – do you see value in the distance between the two?

Adel Abidin: Living and working in Finland has been a truly transformative experience for me. Coming from a different cultural background, the contrast between my upbringing and the Finnish lifestyle has been significant. However, I find immense value in this distance and the opportunity it provides for personal growth.

The beauty of being an immigrant lies in the ability to embrace and integrate two different cultures, ultimately creating a unique hybrid culture that shapes my perspectives and actions in life. While I initially faced challenges, my enrolment in the MFA program at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki played a pivotal role in breaking down cultural barriers.

It was through this artistic journey that I realised artists are truly citizens of the world, transcending geographical boundaries and cultural limitations.

Adel Abidin, Politically Correct (2018)

Traditions, although deeply rooted in our identities, should never serve as constraints. Instead, they should act as a foundation for personal growth and evolution. By embracing the traditions of the Middle East alongside the Nordic/European sensibility, I’ve cultivated a sense of adaptability and openness to new experiences. This mindset allows me to thriven any local environment while retaining a deep appreciation for both cultures. The fusion of these diverse influences has shaped my character, allowing me to embrace the world as a global citizen and find inspiration in the rich tapestry of cultures that surround me.

magpie: What’s your opinion of the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia? There’s a view in the West that Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in a comprehensive programme of image-(re)making and that projects such as the Ithra Art Prize inevitably have political overtones. How do you react to this?

AA: I hold a deeply positive opinion of the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia and possess a profound appreciation for the art that emanates from this vibrant country. Through my personal connections within the Saudi art scene, I have been privileged to witness the dedication and hard work of officials, cultural planners, artists, and thinkers who have come together to bring this thriving artistic community to life, shaping a vivid and dynamic cultural scene.

As for the second part of the question, it is important to recognise that countries worldwide actively engage in shaping their own image and promoting their cultural endeavours. However, what distinguishes Saudi Arabia is the remarkable pace of its evolution and the effective allocation of resources to create an internationally recognised artistic hub.

The world is driven by images, with branding and image-building playing significant roles in shaping perception. Participating in promotional activities is not only understandable but also essential. In this context, the Ithra Art Prize holds immense value for artists, both financially and mentally. It serves as a powerful motivator and instills hope in Saudi and Arab artists, encouraging them to produce exceptional works.

The existence of such a prize undoubtedly contributes to the growth and development of the artistic community in Saudi Arabia, as well as positively impacting the broader Arab Overall, I firmly believe that the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia is thriving and deserving of recognition.

magpie: The press statement speaks of your use of humour and paradox …

AA: The use of sarcasm, humour, and paradox in my work serves as a dynamic means of conveying ideas within a broader context. I view these tools as versatile approaches that can be deployed when the situation calls for it. In a world characterised by complexities and contradictions, sarcasm and humor can provide a reasonable and nuanced response to the state of affairs.

So while sarcasm, humour, and paradox are tools I employ to convey ideas within my work, they transcend a strict personal identity representation. They offer adaptable approaches to navigate the intricacies of the world.

Adel Abidin, Musical Manifest 1 (2022: still from video)

As for my upcoming project, ON, it is crucial to acknowledge that art is inherently subjective and open to interpretation. I firmly believe that each individual brings their own unique perspective and experiences to the artworks they encounter.

I prefer to refrain from providing explicit details or establishing rigid expectations for viewers regarding the specific approach they will encounter in ON. Instead, I aim to create a space where viewers can engage with the artwork openly. I believe it is essential to foster an organic and individual experience for viewers, enabling them to engage with the artwork without preconceived notions and allowing for a deeper exploration of its themes and messages.

magpie: You’ve said that ON explores the intricate relationship between history, memory and identity – “the fragility of history and the organic nature of memory”. Can you expand on this?

AA: ON reflects the understanding that history is a fluid and subjective entity, susceptible to reinterpretation and manipulation. The organic nature of memory and the selective nature of historical narratives underscore the complexity and fragility of our collective understanding of the past.

Additionally, I emphasise the oral tradition through which history is conveyed, passing from one person to another, inevitably adding or subtracting elements from the actual events that transpired. This dynamic aspect renders history inherently intangible and fragile.

To expand upon this concept, I perceive history as a living sculpture that undergoes constant shaping and moulding whenever it is discussed or recounted. Each time we revisit an event, we bring our own unique perspectives, biases, and interpretations, thereby altering its form. In this sense, history is not a static entity, but rather a malleable construct that is profoundly influenced by our current knowledge, experiences, and cultural contexts.

Adel Abidin, Archive (2018)

Similarly, memory plays a significant role in shaping our understanding of the past. When we recollect events from our memory, they are not retrieved in a pristine and objective manner. Instead, we overlay our present-day knowledge, emotions, and experiences onto those memories. This interplay between our current selves and past recollections introduces layers of subjectivity and interpretation, further blurring the boundaries between what truly transpired and how we remember it.

Furthermore, the historical accounts we commonly encounter are often written from the perspective of the victors or those in power. This inherent bias means that we are limited to accessing only one side of the story, while alternative viewpoints or marginalised narratives may be omitted. This selective nature of historical narratives contributes to the intangible and fragile nature of history, reminding us that it is not an absolute truth, but rather a constructed narrative influenced by those who hold the pen.

magpie: So is ON in any way a political piece?

AA: ON touches upon historical events and societal issues, but it is primarily focused on exploring the fragility of history and the nature of oral archiving. The inclusion of the Zanj Rebellion serves as an example to illustrate this concept.

While the Zanj Rebellion had political implications in its historical context [essentially the revolt started as a religious/social uprising against the Abbasid caliphate by the suppressed and oppressed inhabitants of the area around Basra] the emphasis in ON is not on direct political commentary. Rather, the artwork aims to make a social and human comment, shedding light on an almost forgotten event and its significance. By choosing this particular historical event, the intention is to highlight the struggle for freedom and the fight for basic human rights, transcending specific political agendas.

ON invites viewers to reflect on the enduring themes of social justice, resilience, and the power of collective action. It encourages a deeper understanding of the human experience and the complexities of historical narratives. While the Zanj Rebellion had political dimensions, the emphasis of ON lies more in its social and human commentary, providing a platform for dialogue and reflection on forgotten aspects of our collective history.

magpie: Can you tell us about some of the practicalities – how big will the installation be?

AA: The wall installation is an impressive piece, spanning four by two and a half metres and commanding a significant visual presence. To maintain a sense of authenticity and originality in my exploration of history, I have deliberately chosen to utilise traditional mediums and techniques, eschewing reliance on computers or printers. Instead, I am working with organic materials such as cotton canvas, Japanese rice paper, and starch. The selection of these materials is intentional, as I believe the foundation of the artwork should be as integral to the concept as the final medium, such as ink.

By employing traditional materials and techniques, I aim to imbue ON with a lasting quality [that] emphasises the importance of originality and authenticity in the exploration of history. While the artwork is not specifically tailored to a particular site, it is designed to endure over time, preserving its integrity and impact.

During the creation of this piece, I anticipate encountering challenges and obstacles, particularly as I venture into uncharted territory with new mediums and push the boundaries of traditional techniques. However, as an artist, I embrace these challenges as opportunities for growth and problem-solving. The beauty of art lies in the ability to overcome difficulties, conducting thorough research, and finding innovative solutions.

magpie: What’s next for you?

AA: After successfully finishing a commission for a permanent installation on the façade of Mathaf in Doha [below], I can announce the completion of a significant commission for the Nordic House in Iceland. This particular opportunity allowed me to artistically comment on the treatment of Iraqi asylum seekers by the official immigration services in Finland, shedding light on the absurdities and challenges faced by individuals in their cases. I collaborated closely with journalist and activist Otti Popp, who provided me with authentic materials showcasing the responses of the immigration office to various cases. It was a powerful and thought-provoking project, and I’m grateful for the chance to bring attention to these important issues through my art.

In addition to this recent commission, I am eagerly looking forward to several art shows and exhibitions throughout the year. I feel privileged to be preparing for two solo exhibitions [in Helsinki and Beirut] that delve deeper into my ongoing research on the Zanj Rebellion. Through innovative approaches and unique presentations, I aim to shed new light on this historical event and explore its relevance to contemporary society.

While specific details cannot be divulged at this moment, rest assured that these projects will be meticulously crafted and infused with my distinctive artistic expression. I am eager to challenge perceptions and invite viewers to explore different perspectives through my work.

Launched in 2017 and originally open only to Saudi and Saudi-based contemporary artists in collaboration, the Ithra Art Prize is now available to artists from or based in any of the 22 Arab countries. This year’s prize jury comprised art historian and gallery owner Andrée Sfeir-Semler; Bahraini artist Balqees Fakhro; Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museum at Ithra; art critic, curator and art historian Murtaza Vali; and Ridha Moumni, Deputy Chair of Middle East and North Africa at Christie’s. The winning artwork is due to be unveiled in June as part of Ithra’s fifth anniversary celebrations.

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