John Akomfrah wins £40,000 Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff

The £40,000 Artes Mundi contemporary art prize has been won by a filmmaker inspired by migration and religious persecution over four centuries.

John Akomfrah was chosen for his “substantial body of outstanding work” over a number of years, including his latest video installation Auto Da Fé.

The international prize was awarded in Cardiff, where an exhibition of the six shortlisted artists is being held.

London-based Akomfrah said he was “absolutely touched” by the award.

The Ghanaian-born filmmaker is founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose work has involved use of archive film, newsreel and still photos.

The winning video installation, which lasts 40 minutes over two screens at National Museum Wales, was inspired while he was teaching in Barbados in 2009.

Akomfrah, 59, saw a cemetery containing 17th Century graves of Sephardic Jewish refugees who had fled Brazil.

“I was asking ‘how did they get here?'” he said.

Themes of migration and global politics dominated the shortlist for the seventh biannual prize.

Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams, whose giant video installation imagined a futuristic city built on the slopes of Cadair Idris, won The Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award.

Williams’ entry, Tyrrau Mawr, will now be added to National Museum Wales’ permanent collection.

Karen Mackinnon, Artes Mundi director said: “The judges felt that all the shortlisted artists showed outstanding work.

“However the prize is awarded not just for the work in the exhibition but for the continued excellence of their practice over the past eight years.

“The Artes Mundi 7 Prize was awarded for Akomfrah’s presentation of Auto Da Fé and for a substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution. To speak of these things in this particular moment feels more important than ever.”

The filmmaker came to prominence in the mid 1980s for his award-winning documentary for Channel Four, Handsworth Songs, made in the aftermath of riots in that district of Birmingham.

As well as films examining black British identity and the migrant experience in the UK, Akomfrah has directed documentaries on Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. He received the OBE in 2008.

What the critics said:

“Some might say the video is too glossy – moving away from [Akomfrah’s] his more gritty presentations in the past- but the beauty of the film encourages the viewer to linger and take in the poignant message”. Karen Wright in The Independent.

“There is a dramatically diverse range in this year’s shortlist for Artes Mundi 7, a prize that is quietly stealing into Turner territory”. Louisa Buck, Daily Telegraph

“Williams really deserves to win, not because he is Welsh, but because his is the most consummately successful and engaging work here. It really stays with me”. Adrian Searle writing in The Guardian

“Although the exhibition is firmly rooted in Wales, selected artists not only represent a broad range of national identities, but are also united by their works’ concern with what Artes Mundi’s director Karen MacKinnon describes as ‘global issues'”. Gabrielle Schwarz – Apollo

Akomfrah said after receiving the prize: “I am absolutely touched by this and enormously grateful for the chance it offers to finally finish off something I have been planning for over a decade.

“Over the years, Artes Mundi has chosen some very brilliant artists for this award; all were important artists doing challenging and engaged work and to join that group is a huge honour and responsibility.”

Chair of judges Oliver Basciano paid tribute to his “exquisite cinematic language in films”.

“Over his long career, Akomfrah’s practice underlines how art has the unique ability to reflect on and shape the human condition, in alignment with fundamental principles of Artes Mundi,” he said.

The exhibition runs at National Museum Wales and Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff until 26 February.

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