Five chosen for Abraaj Capital Art Prize, one of world's richest

The winners of this year's Abraaj Capital Art Prize have been named and while details of their works are top secret until the grand reveal at next year's Art Dubai, here is what you can expect.

From left, Huma Mulji of Pakistan and Iman Issa of Egypt are two of the five winners of this year's Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Jaime Puebla / The National
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Five years on and the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (Acap) remains one of the world's most generous annual awards, providing a total of US$1 million (Dh3.67m) to allow five artists to each realise an extravagant idea.
The winners of this year's prize were announced yesterday and the line-up is a diverse bunch: Vartan Avakian (Lebanon), Iman Issa (Egypt), Huma Mulji (Pakistan), Hrair Sarkissian (Syria) and Rayyane Tabet (Lebanon).
The artists are already knuckling down to work on their final piece, which will be exhibited from March 20 to 23 next year, in a curated show during Art Dubai, after which the pieces enter the permanent collection of Abraaj Capital.
Details of each work remain top secret until the pieces are unveiled next year, with all artists bound to secrecy by the organisers.
The prize is focused on artists from or connected to the Middle East /North Africa / South Asia (Menasa) region. Abraaj Capital, which funds the prize, is a private equity manager and investment company with roots in the region. Frederic Sicre, a partner at Abraaj Capital, describes the prize as a "recognition to Menasa that we [as a company] are born from here and want to continue playing a strong role in the culture of the region."
How it works
Artists submit proposals at the start of the year, with the prize particularly suited to ideas that require significant resources to be realised. Murtaza Vali, the curator of this year's Acap exhibition, describes a certain "scale" of idea that connects each edition of the prize.
A selection committee of artworld luminaries sifts through the proposals, with the panel including the Art Dubai director Antonia Carver, Tate's Jessica Morgan and Glenn Lowry of New York's Museum of Modern Art. More than 100 proposals were submitted this year.
What's in it for the artist?
In addition to seeing through an idea that has previously been held back due to lack of funding, the prize has often proved helpful as a leg-up for an artist to make progress in their career. Shezad Dawood, an Acap 2011 winner, has taken ideas from his final prize work and developed them further into a feature film that was released last year. Similarly, works from different editions of the prize are being increasingly requested for loan to institutions and exhibitions internationally.
A distinctly Acap time for an artist
Notably, the artists are all at similar stages of their career - recognised, widely-exhibited and ready to get their teeth into the kind of big project that Acap warrants. Hrair Sarkissian is a Syrian artist, known primarily for using his camera to explore how history can be contained or buried in a physical space. Vartan Avakian is a timely inclusion, as this Beirut-based artist warps and works with popular culture to create (sometimes humorous) commentaries on contemporary life and it'll be interesting to see what comes out of working on a long-term project like this. Also, Rayyane Tabet, the youngest artist in the line-up, has quickly gained a lot of attention with shows at The New Museum in New York and by scooping the 2011 Sharjah Biennial Artist Prize for an Emerging Artist.
A distinctly Acap idea
"My work is composed of lots of different, smaller components and the ideas for this Acap proposal have existed as germs for many, many years," says Huma Mulji, a Pakistani artist who is not afraid to wrestle with the frenetic, often contradictory ways that her country has developed in recent years. Mulji's approach pulls no punches, and her work Arabian Delight (a taxidermied camel stuffed into a suitcase) was removed by the co-ordinators from Art Dubai 2008. It will be good to see what she comes up with for the forthcoming event.
This notion of drawing together latent ideas into a proposal is echoed by the Egyptian artist Iman Issa, who largely works in video and installation and has exhibited from Gwangju to New York. "It's about the potential an opportunity like this would offer," says Issa. "It opens up your ideas to new possibilities."
The curator
Murtaza Vali has been selected for the increasingly vital role of curator for Acap this year. Based between Sharjah and New York, Vali is a key critic on regional art and an accomplished curator.
Part of the curator's job is to find some connectivity between the proposals so as to give the final exhibition some shape. Vali is also there to be a sounding board for the artists and to put together a book on this year's winning works: "Because of the scale of the prize, the publication will be about trying to put these works in context with the artist's larger practice, which will benefit all involved."
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