Traditionally, the Turner Prize has served as a platform for early career artists. Since 1991, the upper age limit for candidates had been set at fifty, meaning that it often excluded contributions from artists whose work may not have followed a traditional route or slotted easily into the mainstream. With those restrictions now lifted, however, the selections for 2017 reveal a set of nominees whose work is compelling, relevant, and proof, should it be needed, of the wisdom in rescinding the competition’s age limit. These are: Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner, Lubaina Himid and Rosalind Nashashibi.
As part of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture 2017, each of the artists will be exhibited at Ferens Art Gallery, showcasing a selection of their works as part of the Turner Prize 2017 exhibition. This will mark the fifth time that the prize has been hosted outside of London, following previous stints at Liverpool, Gateshead, Derry and Glasgow.
Themes of identity and belonging take centre stage in the work of Hurvin Anderson, a British painter whose mastery of traditional painting forms, such as still life and portraiture, is enriched by his perceptive response to today’s political climate. Born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents, Anderson uses painting as a tool to deconstruct and discuss his surroundings, employing vivid blocks of colour to break down a scene into its constituent parts. Anderson’s choice of setting, such as traditional barber shops, along with his use of vibrant colour palettes, often allude to Caribbean culture, while equally encompassing the Handsworth neighbourhood he grew up in. For example, his ‘Welcome Series’ (2004) looks further afield to Jamaica and Trinidad, borrowing the designs of security grilles. Deployed as deceptively ornamental stencils placed in front of the idyllic painted landscapes, this subversion of planes is characteristic of much of Anderson’s work, at once levelling the image and making the viewer feel like an onlooker removed from the scene. While some people may be surprised by the inclusion of a painter in a contest more commonly associated with conceptual works, Anderson’s subtle evocations of place hold up a mirror to the multi-faceted experience that is growing up in the UK today. The security grilles, too, remain an especially compelling motif in a world that seems to have developed a mania for enforcing borders and putting up walls.
Likewise, it would be futile trying to pigeonhole Andrea Büttner by her medium: she experiments with so many different techniques that her work defies easy categorisation. A multidisciplinary artist from Stuttgart, she frequently arrives at unexpected discoveries through testing out different skills and modes of production, such as screen-printing, woodcuts, sculpture, performance and painting. Interestingly, much of Büttner’s output is informed by collaboration, whether this is through sharing her father’s drawings in ‘Nest Dirtier’ (2007) or inviting Carmelite nuns to film themselves assembling baskets and icons, as in the piece ‘Little Works’ (2007). She questions ideas about labour, authorship and the final value of an artwork, never relying on assumptions or fixed techniques to guide her creative process. For me, the lasting impression of Büttner’s work is her emphasis on process, and open-minded approach towards possible failure. I also like that she rejects the notion of presenting us with a glossy finished product: instead you almost feel as though you’ve been through the work-shopping stages alongside her.
With the focus of mainstream media and politics becoming increasingly narrow, it is crucial for artists to dismantle the assumptions of the establishment—and for this reason, Lubaina Himid’s voice resonates all the more. Perhaps it seems slightly strange to talk about ‘dismantling the establishment’ when discussing an event as venerated as the Turner Prize, but it is precisely Himid’s commitment to challenging assumptions, and questioning embedded power structures, that makes her such a worthy candidate for the prize. Since the 1980s, Himid’s work has grappled with topics surrounding black identity, drawing attention to the ways in which this is represented, or obfuscated, by mainstream institutions. Often, she looks back through history and presents new narratives which run deeper than the status quo; this year, for example, exhibitions Navigation Charts at Spike Island, and Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford, featured some of her most celebrated works, including the piece ‘Naming the Money’ (2004) —one hundred life-size painted cut-out figures arranged throughout a space. Each figure possesses both a birth name and original trade, alongside the new name and occupation they have taken on following their displacement. This is the story of the slave/servant but also of the emigre and the asylum seeker. Despite the tendency of institutional hierarchies to push stories of immigration into the margins, under Himid’s supervision they emerge robust and fully-realised, highlighting the incalculable contribution of the diaspora.
The work of Rosalind Nashashibi also takes an interest in the concept of place, and with it the different strands of identity that make up a site and its inhabitants. She is a filmmaker and photographer who takes understated and seemingly everyday subject matter to reveal the complex tensions simmering underneath. This is clear in ‘Dahiet a Bareed, District of the Post Office‘ (2002), which was filmed in a housing zone established decades earlier in the West Bank by her grandfather, then the head of the regional post office. Nashashibi was confronted with a ‘no-man’s land’ on arrival, under the jurisdiction of neither Palestine nor Israel but dominated, rather, by children at play. In her rejection of binary suppositions about ‘East’ and ‘West’, and her use of Egyptian music over black and white footage of women rummaging through wares at a Salvation Army jumble sale in Scotland (‘The State Of Things’, 2002), she deliberately entangles the viewer’s associations of culture and place.
This year’s prize is sure to mark an exciting and galvanising period for Hull, bringing some of the UK’s most groundbreaking works to the city’s doorstep. Furthermore, the decision to remove the upper age limit is an acknowledgement of the fact that creativity operates within its own parameters, and that an artist’s best work may come later in their career.
Turner Prize 2017, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 26 September 2017 – 7 January 2018. The winner of Turner Prize 2017 will be announced in early December.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.