South African photographer wins inaugural Artraker Award for “conflict art”

As African art gathers international attention, photographs of South Africa’s poorest citizens win the first ever award for conflict art, Artraker.

South African photographer Alexia Webster has won the inaugural Artraker Award, a prize spotlighting “conflict art” from around the world. Webster’s win comes at a time when international interest in contemporary African art is high.

Alexia Webster, 'Street Studio Cape Town 2',  2013, digital C-print. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexia Webster, ‘Street Studio Cape Town 2′, 2013, digital C-print. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexia Webster, a South African photographer, won the inaugural Artraker Award on 21 September for her pictures of people living in the economic sidelines of South Africa’s megacities. Carrying prize money of GBP 2500, the Artraker Award is the first to acknowledge art and creativity in situations of conflict.

Taking portrait art to South Africa’s streets

Johannesburg-born Webster, who has been a photojournalist for ten years, took the award for works from her “Street Studios” series, an ongoing project. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Webster described the process behind her “Street Studios”.

I set up an outdoor photographic studio on a street corner with a portable photo printer. We invited anyone who wanted to sit and pose for free, and then we gave them the photograph. It’s been very successful. Every time we do it, we have at least 200 people come.

The temporary studios mean that poverty-stricken or displaced people can have a family portrait. “The images human beings seem to treasure the most are of ourselves, our loved ones and our ancestors,” explains Webster on the Artraker website. “Whether in war or security, poverty or wealth, a family photograph is a precious object. It affirms our identity and worth, and our place in humanity.”

Click here to watch Alexia Webster talking about Street Studios on 

Dr Bernadette Buckley, Convenor of the MA in Arts and Politics at University of London’s Goldsmiths College, where the award was presented, highlighted the importance of public collaboration and connection in Webster’s success.

Alexia’s work stood out on account of the fact that her art touches both the viewing public and those photographed.  A critical factor in our decision was the view that the concept was easily scalable; the Artraker prize money is awarded towards the replication of her Street Studios initiative in refugee camps across the continent where it was felt the concept could be an incredibly powerful tool in helping people to reclaim their future.

Syrian conflicts and contested territories

Over 300 artists from ninety “geopolitical hotspots” entered the inaugural Artraker, One World News blog reports. The eighteen shortlisted included a video work sketching a typical day for a Syrian rebel soldier, by Iranian Amirhossein Bayani, as well as a piece of performance art by Alexandra Handal, who created an ironic “Dream Homes” estate agency for property on contested Palestinian land.

Webster’s win came shortly before Joburg Art Fair, which took place from 27 to 29 September in South Africa’s third city. Fair Director Ross Douglas, talking to ArtTactic, said that in recent years the South African art market had matured.

When [Joburg Art Fair] started the market was very small, very local, not very international […] If you look at six years later we suddenly see a number of South African artists who have broken internationally. We’ve seen the art market transform quite a lot: six years ago it was predominantly white, both in terms of buyers and artists, and now that’s changed; and the other very interesting thing is the SA market is becoming part of the African contemporary art market […] There’s now a sense that Africa has a contemporary art movement, which there wasn’t six years ago. 

International institutions have strengthened their focus on African contemporary art in recent years, with the likes of London’s Tate Modern deploying acquisitions teams to the continent annually. Internationally Bonham’s remains the only auction house to specialise in contemporary African art, but Sotheby’s is expanding its African department.

Right now African art is flourishing beyond belief,” said Nigerian artist Ndidi Emefiele in an interview with Al Jazeera.  ”A lot has changed drastically: this year Angola was the first African country to get the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. A lot of people initially collect African art just to have something on the wall, but I think there’s a  lot more value attached to it.”

Cassandra Naji


Related Topics: African art and artists, contemporary photography, portraiture, art prizes, community art

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