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The four artists shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize create art that honors marginalized communities, but the award’s lead sponsor, Stagecoach, has a decades-old history of fighting against LGBTQ community. In 2000, the co-founder and chair of the Scottish transportation company, Sir Brian Souter, gave £1 million (~$1,652,881 after inflation) to a campaign to keep the anti-gay section 28 in Scottish law.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani are in the running to win the United Kingdom’s biggest art prize, which is organized by Tate museums. The announcement came earlier today from Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain and chairman of the award’s jury. In a statement, Farquharson said that these artists play with performance and sound “often because their work seeks to foreground the voices of those who have been marginalized by dominant historical accounts or accounts of society today — because of their gender and in many other ways.”
The jurors describe Beirut-based Hamdan as an “artist and audio investigator, whose work explores the role of sound and voice within the law and human rights.” He was nominated for Earwitness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery last year, among other shows. The exhibition recalled the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya, which involved the sounds of stomping feet and a body being beaten with a Pepsi bottle.
Murillo, an artist born in Colombia but now based in London has become a major player in the art market after a previous career as a cleaner in 2012. About him, Farquharson said, “His non-profit exhibitions have shown the true breadth of his practice; this feels like a timely nomination.” The artist currently has an exhibition, called Violent Amnesia, on view at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge; it features black canvases inspired by a flight he took from Tel Aviv to Baku when he became aware of a dead body in the hold.
Jurors lauded Tai Shani for her ongoing “Dark Continent” project, which “uses the structure of an allegorical city of women to explore feminine subjectivity and experience, through a gothic/sci-fi lens.” The artist has been a longtime critic of artist fees from institutions, which make it difficult for her to make a living from her practice. “I get commissions and I get fees, but those fees are no way reflective of what it takes to make the work. They can range from £300 to £3,000,” she told The Art Newspaper Podcast. “There’s no correlations, there’s no standard, there’s no regulation.”
Cammock is someone whose work questions “who speaks on behalf of whom and on what terms,” according to Alessio Antoniolli, a juror for the Turner Prize who also directs Gasworks & Triangle Network. Last year, the artist also won the Max Mara Prize for Women. Her exhibition, The Long Note, held at the Void Gallery in Derry last autumn, celebrated the involvement of women in the civil rights movement in Derry in 1968 when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland.
This year’s Turner Prize exhibition will be held for the first time at Turner Contemporary in Margate, England. The gallery has enlisted a local company, Stagecoach South East, as a lead sponsor and board member. It’s one of 18 locally managed companies within the Stagecoach Group.
Victoria Pomery, the director of Turner Contemporary, defended Stagecoach at the press conference, saying that the company has been involved in a variety of local community service projects. “We are not in a major conurbation and we are constantly trying to bring new partnerships in to play so we thought Stagecoach could achieve that.”
A spokesperson for the pro-LGBTQ British group Stonewall told the Guardian that they could not comment directly on the Turner Prize sponsorship yet but did say that “Brian Souter’s previous comments about LGBT people are just one example of how much work is still left to do to combat discrimination.” (In 2011, Souter warned that society may implode if “traditional marriage” disappeared.)
Stagecoach responded with their own statement, which tried to distance the company from the chairman’s past actions. “Our Stagecoach culture values transparency, diversity, and respect. We expect our employees to commit to doing the right thing, to respect other individuals at all times and treat them with dignity, and thoughtfulness, and we are committed to providing equal opportunities for all.”
The finalists for the Turner Prize have not yet made comments to the press about their opinions on the sponsorship deal, and reactions from administrators behind the award have been shy. The Art Newspaper reports that Pomery responded to criticism by saying, “We have to to take a range of factors into consideration when looking at sponsors.”