This is the first year that the Ithra Art Prize has been open to artists from any Arab country – the previous three iterations of the prize, presented by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (aka Ithra) in collaboration with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, were open to Saudi artists only.
The winner this time, selected from around 1,500 entries, is conceptual artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke. She will receive up to $100,000 to create her proposed project (it has the working title E Pluribus Unum – Modern Fossil) for unveiling in December at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, KSA’s first biennale.
The motto E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) was originally used by the USA to signify that individual states came together to form one nation. Subsequently it’s been revamped to imply superiority over other nations, but like many Latin tags you can read into it mostly what you want …
There are few details about Kaabi-Linke’s version of it. We’re told that the project “explores the impact of the global pandemic through looking at the aviation industry as a marker of economic growth while highlighting humanity’s shared experience of being grounded on Earth”, which sounds all-encompassing but certainly fits Kaabi-Linke’s evident concerns.
The artist’s personal history of migration – born in Tunis, raised between Tunis, Kyiv, Dubai and Paris, PhD from the Sorbonne, based in Berlin – has greatly influenced her work, though she’s been quoted as describing it as “unintentionally autobiographical”. Certainly her installations, videos, objects and pictorial works typically feature urban contexts, overlaid with personal and national memory, often echoing geographical or politically constructed identities.
Her track record includes regular solo and group shows and commissioned works over the last 12 years. Our first encounter with her was an early one, the installation Under Standing Over Views for the 2009 Sharjah Biennial; it’s a hanging map made from fragments of painted plaster and paper collected from walls in eight European and North African cities and suspended individually on black string to form a map of the Emirates.
A couple of years later she won the 2011 Abraaj Group Art Prize with another dramatic hanging structure. Flying Carpets is a cage-like installation in rubber and steel that casts geometric shadows on to the floor reminiscent of the carpets of Venetian street vendors.
She’s always been busy. This year for instance she’s installed a substantial public installation in Bruges, a shiny circular bench that is impossible to sit upon (called Inner Circle, it speaks powerfully about social exclusion and the limits of hospitality). Her site specific installation Modulor 1 features in The Architecture of Confinement, a group exhibition curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath running at Munich’s BNKR to October 2021; in Modulor I Nadia Kaabi-Linke has outlined the dimensions of solitary confinement cells in various prisons around the world (the title is a conscious reference to Le Corbusier’s anthropomorphic scale of proportions Modulor and the idea that a given space can be rationalised into an optimal form).
And Nadia Kaabi-Linke already has a link to Ithra: her installation All Along the Watchtower is included in the Ithra Museum’s current Seeing & Perceiving exhibition, which runs to next March.