In a surprise announcement, the 2016 Turner Prize committee has bestowed the coveted contemporary art award on all the Syrian refugees who’ve left their war-torn country. This is the first time the prize has been given early, and the first time it will be divided among 4.6 million people, which is the total number of Syrian refugees in the world today.
“We think it is the right gesture and captures the spirit of our age,” Tate Britain Director Alex Farquharson, who is also a member of the 2016 Turner Prize committee, told Hyperallergic. “They are the hidden labor of some of the most important art happening today.”
It’s undeniable that Syrian refugees have become a major focus of the art world. They’ve been part of numerous projects by Ai Weiwei, are assembling Olafur Eliasson’s “green light” lamp in Vienna and painting murals on prisons in northern Iraq, and have served as a muse for countless design and art projects, including a coat that becomes a sleeping bag or tent and postcards by well-known artists. The British Council even set up a commissioning program for Syrian refugees.
Turner Prize jury member Beatrix Ruf, who is the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, explained that she was happy to facilitate the award, and she hoped this would help the refugees with their immigration applications. “They will all be able to qualify as artists in Europe, and they’ll become eligible for grants from various agencies,” she said.
The award may in fact expedite visa applications for the refugees, as they will now qualify for a Tier 1 artist visa — given for “Exceptional Talent” — in the UK, and for special artist visas offered in other EU nations. “Deep down we all know that everyone is an artist,” Ruf said.
The Turner Prize committee didn’t indicate how they would distribute the £40,000 (~$57,000) award to all the refugees.
The award comes at a time when art exhibitions showing Syrian refugee children’s art are popping up all across Europe, and collectors are clamoring for the bright colors and dark subject matter. “I was fascinated by the use of neon pink in Miriam’s drawing of crossing the Aegean Sea,” said Bern-based collector Gustav Baumgartner. “And she excels at portraying the long journey from Aleppo through serialization. I also noticed the day after she turned 9 she entered a blue period, which may signal a maturation in her style. It is better than Josh Smith, because this is lived experience,” he added. “She made her latest, titled ‘Aegean,’ specially for me. It’s unique in that it incorporates text into the piece. A rarity in her body of work.”
Soon after the announcement, the Sotheby’s auction house announced it will be staging a Refugee Art auction in May that will respond to the growing interest in Syrian refugees. “It is a reflection of the growing power of itinerant artists and how they are responding to their surroundings,” said Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith. “We would be crazy not to test the waters in this market.”
Art historian Claire Bishop has applauded the decision as a natural evolution of social practice art. “The plight of the refugees is the hidden narrative of the EU and therefore a journey from skeptical distance to imbrication and facilitating of the social disruption in the public sphere,” Bishop told Hyperallergic. “This award is clearly predicated on the assumption that value judgements are necessary, not as a means to reinforce elite culture and police the boundaries of art and non-art, but as a way to understand and clarify our shared values at a given historical moment.”
In related news, the Documenta committee has announced that Syrian refugees will be curating the next quinquennial exhibition, which is set to take place in Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece, in 2017.