"We choose artists who, through the process or presentation of their work, directly engage with global issues, art and society, and its ability to suggest new ways of engaging with and living in the world. That’s what makes Artes Mundi useful and inspirational."
Our interview with Director and Curator of the Art Prize Artes Mundi: Karen MacKinnon
Hello Karen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us about your background and how Artes Mundi's started?
Artes Mundi was founded in 2002 by a Welsh artist called William Wilkins. At the time it responded to the important need to expand Wales’ international contemporary arts offer, but also to explore the unique idea of a contemporary arts exhibition and prize focusing on the human condition and the truly broad field of opportunities for interpretation and creativity fuelled by the theme.As for me, I started my career at Chapter, in Cardiff, where I focused on solo exhibitions and commissions with artists such as Lucy Gunning, Nick Crowe and Orlan. Later on, at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, in Swansea, I curated international shows such as Displaced: Contemporary Art from Colombia which included the artists Oscar Muñoz, José Alejandro Restrepo and Maria Elvira Escallón. I also worked on Shimabuku’s Swansea Jack Memorial Swimming Competition, Rut Blees Luxemburg exhibition Folly and the city wide project Let’s see what happens... (2013) which included the work of 7 artists from Wales and China across 5 sites in Swansea.
In 2005 I had the pleasure to curate the Welsh Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, showcasing Peter Finnemore, Laura Ford, Paul Granjon and a residency with Bedwyr Williams. As a curator I have always been interested in the relationships between local and global, historical and contemporary, art and social change. Since joining Artes Mundi as Director and Curator I’ve had the privilege to work with fantastic artists, selectors, judges and professionals from all over the world.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement in running Artes Mundi?
Over the last four years, it has been fantastic to see the Artes Mundi’s brand gaining such widespread recognition in the UK and abroad. I also regard as an achievement, for me and my for team as well, to keep this important event running at such a high-level despite the difficult times we are going through in terms of funding and support in the visual arts sector. That has been the greatest obstacle I’ve had to face, but one that is shared amongst my peers. But of equal important is the work we have done to really embed this international prize in Cardiff and Wales where we are based. We have begun to commission work outside the prize with Artes Mundi's, for example in the past 4 years we have worked on co-commissions with Oriel Mostyn such as Broomberg and Chanerin's Holy Bible and Lawrence Abu Hamden and Woman’s Hour as part of Wales Millennium's Centre Festival of the Voice. We also worked on a co-commission by Bedwyr Williams with 14:18 Now. We are also developing international programmers to support local artists in an international context watch this space!
The Independent once described Artes Mundi with the headline ‘Why can’t the Turner prize be like this?’ Do you feel the Turner prize competition is in need of competition, itself?
I think that Artes Mundi and the Turner Prize are two very distinct and important prizes in the UK so whilst it’s a very flattering headline it’s not something I want to encourage. After all there are many prizes in the UK, for example The Jerwood Prize, The Baltic's Artist’s Award for emerging artists, and The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture. What makes us different is that our core theme is the human condition.
We choose artists who, through the process or presentation of their work, directly engage with global issues, art and society, and its ability to suggest new ways of engaging with and living in the world. That’s what makes Artes Mundi useful and inspirational.
We are also non-venue based, and whilst National Museum Cardiff is our main partner for the biennial exhibition and prize, we have many other partner organisations across the UK and internationally for our other projects.
We will continue to work to bring exceptional and challenging international artists to Wales, generating unique opportunities for individuals and local communities to engage creatively with the urgent issues of our time in ways which are meaningful in our everyday lives.
I believe there is a great need for prizes such as Artes Mundi and the Turner.
Could you talk about Artes Mundi 7 and the overall winner: John Akomfrah's work?
It was lovely to work with the Artes Mundi 7 shortlist, there was a great diversity of work and perspectives in the exhibition which made it difficult for our judges to reach a decision. They all showed outstanding work. The show had a great response, and John’s work, Auto da Fé, was one of the audience’s favourite; it resonated with a lot of people on a very personal level. The allusion to the reality of migration and religious persecution that has taken place throughout the centuries felt disturbingly current. We’ve had visitors leaving us comments saying things like “this film tells the story of my life”.
It was a privilege, as always, to meet such an incredibly talented group of people.
Why is the art prize every two years?
Working with the biennial time-frame allows us to secure necessary funding, develop the programme and build creative conversations with artists, this is particularly important to us as it reflects on the quality of the exhibition.
Also, although the Exhibition and Prize are at the core of our organisation, we also work on an extended programme of activities, special commissions and partnerships with national and international organisations. We have one co-commission and one major exhibition coming up in 2018 with two Welsh museums that will bring some of our past artists back to Wales.
What does Artes Mundi look for in an artist?
That is an interesting question, because, although we do have a broad theme which is the human condition, the choice of artists is ultimately out of our hands. While preparing each exhibition, we nominate an independent panel of international curators who review all nominations and choose artists. The selectors do have in mind our core theme, but the choice is theirs.
I think this is particularly interesting, as it guarantees the uniqueness and freshness of each exhibition, and also opens up possibilities for the inclusion of artists from a wide range of nationalities, ages and genders. The criteria for selection is that the artists are already known in the country in which they live and work and that they have, or are beginning to gain an international reputation. This criteria guarantees a long list of around 25 artists who have proved over the past 5 - 8 years that they consistently make work of an excellent standard.
How do you differentiate yourself from other art prizes?
We are international, there is no limit of age or nationality, and we work with artists who somehow explore, in very diverse forms, questions of humanity. Through their work, our artists have explored topical issues such as identity, citizenship, immigration, the environment and war. The shortlists have brought together artists who look at what it means to live in our world today, commenting on the social, political and cultural context of where they live and work in a way that has global relevance but also has local resonance for the audience in Wales.
I think that it is very important, especially nowadays, to open up possibilities for dialogue amongst different cultures and showcase different perspectives. We’ll always keep that notion at our core.
Could you tell us who the shortlisted artists are for Artes Mundi 8? And what are the dates for the show and prize announcement?
This year's shortlist is very exciting, it includes 5 international artists: Anna Boghiguian, Bouchra Khalili, Otobong Nkanga, Trevor Paglen and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
The exhibition will run from 27th October 2018 to February 24th 2019 at National Museum Cardiff, and the Artes Mundi 8 prize will be awarded on the 24th January 2019.
All images courtesy of Artes Mundi
Publish date: 28/09/2017