The International Award for Public Art: A Dialogue between the Concerned
The International Award for Public Art: A Dialogue between the Concerned

Steadily Public Art is attracting artists and communities that understand the importance of inclusivity and the need for larger dialogues through art. Getting traction on all continents it has proven itself to be a space-making practice that unites, amplifies and disseminate powerful ideas at a time when polarized populations are in need for caring and connecting gestures.

The International Award for Public Art (IAPA) was jointly established by International Institute of Public Art (Shanghai University), Institute of Public Art (UK), and the Public Art Review (USA) to acknowledge outstanding projects. Nominations are invited from all over the world under regional categories: Oceania, East and South East Asia, West, Central and South Asia, Africa, Eurasia, Latin America and North America. An international jury of art professionals select projects for one main award and seven regional awards. The categories help a more in-depth understanding of the context though the lens of cultural particularities and social and political realities.

As someone who has been a longtime advocate of public art as a tool to mainstream art and one to carry out community dialogue, I was delighted to participate in the jury of the Sixth IAPA Award recently held in Shanghai. While going through all the eighty-seven nominations I realized that despite cultural and political differences, many concerns ran like a common thread— there was a focus on colonial disruption and erasures. Decolonization projects from within the countries of the colonizers have increased after the un-silencing heralded by the increased consciousness of human and political rights. The impact of societal changes and urbanization on the elderly, and the very young, were also seen by artists as an area that needed addressing. Climate crisis continues to surface in works across latitudes. Conversations around gender justice and global power dynamics are also reoccurring themes in public art.

The diversity of projects was impressive, ‘kNOw school’ a project from rural Assam, India, run by Anga Art Collective can be seen as a true subaltern moment with its subversion of the dominant pedagogy by offering alternative ways to learn while connecting to the local material, skills and cultural practices. The project is not only establishing a respect of indigenous wisdom but involves artists, poets, writers and scholars to build a sustainable pedagogy through visual art.

Disrupting the colonial narrative from within, was the impactful commission granted by the City of Sydney to commemorate two hundred and fifty years of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia. Aboriginal artist Alison Page and Nick Lachajczak collaborated to create a huge whale-bone inspired sculpture. Standing next to the obelisk dedicated to Captain Cook, this piece titled The Eyes of the Land and the Sea bears the history of the Aboriginal people; carved onto the sculpture by the artists. The colossal piece creates a space for ‘other histories’.

In New Zealand and USA, artists representing the First Nations, adopted different strategies for a wider audience. The Dakota Spirit Walk by Marlena Myes employs ‘altered reality’ to disseminate erased history of unjust land treaties and its impact on the cultural and spiritual loss of the Dakota people. The Māori artist Aroha Kocak superimposes a Maori cartography across the town of Otepoti by chalking the names of routes and places to remind the population of its vibrant pre-colonial reality.

As it is becoming evident that social cohesion comes with caring— born from empathy— the project from Italy, Talking Hands, looks to a sensitive social integration of migrants in Trevino. Initiated by Fabrizii Urettini, joined by artists and creatives, it produces opportunities to showcase craft skills through a process of making objects that help change perceptions on both sides, based on an exchange of knowledge and collaboration.

The submission titled Auras Anonymous from Colombia confirms the power of art and artists to change official decisions. When the celebrated Colombian artist Beatriz González decided to put her weight behind the rescue of the mass burial vault/ columbarium and turned it into a public art site, a popular opinion was mobilized that the Mayor of Bogota could not ignore. Bringing these important global projects, that are changing the relationship between art and the community, underscores the commitment of Lewis Biggs, Professor Wang Dawei, Jin Jiangbo and Jack Becker, the visionary founders of the International Award for Public Art.

The prize with its inclusive mandate has the potential to amplify the discursive space by confronting difficult histories and challenges of our time. It’s support of innovative and collaborative strategies across disciplines can give artists confidence to discover new creative thresholds and connect with their location. Most importantly, the discourse it generates is diametrically opposite to the one created by Modernism which was one of exclusion; that labeled all Modern art outside the Western context as derivative. The International Award for Public Art and its founding bodies in recognizing the legitimacy, significance and diversity of each public art project is sending out a powerful message: the voices of all people are equal and important.

Image Title: Beatriz González. Auras Anónimas, 2007-2009. Installation on four columbariums of the central cemetery of Bogotá (8947 serigraphy tombstones on polypropylene sheets). Beatriz González Reasoned Catalogue. Courtesy of the Bank of Arts Archives in Colombia of the Universidad de los Andes.

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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