In a university which celebrates sport, music and theatre so visibly, for a long time it must have been easy for student artists to feel Durham’s cultural scene was not made for them. However, the recent advent and rapid expansion of The Student Art Prize has, to put it simply, changed everything.
As its founding sponsor, Richard Roberts outlined to me after the exhibition, its importance to the student body is two-fold. Clearly, there is the “individual benefit” for the students producing the art; building their confidence, and providing a serious outlet for their creativity rather than treating it as just a hobby. However, there is also a collective boon for students, staff, and locals alike in being able to appreciate and enjoy the work produced, in itself “a form of wellness” and escape. This was epitomised by the prize’s first in-person exhibition launch party, where the walls of the Palatine Centre were adorned with a beautiful and diverse display of art, connected by this year’s theme, ‘hidden’.
In the art category, the winner was Adeline Zhao’s ‘Grafton’, a challenging, abstract sculpture, exploring everything concealed from the artist in the process of depicting and understanding the psyche of the object. Richard revealed it was the piece that provoked the most discussion between the judges, who were impressed by how even the “way it was constructed”, using natural agents like wind and rain, encapsulated the theme.
By contrast, runner-up Charlotte Hide’s ‘Skeletons within Perfection’ used the more conventional medium of graphite to present an eloquent critique of the exploitation of UAE workers by hiding them in the background of her depiction of an urban construction site, an entirely different take on the theme.
The introduction of a photography category also represented an exciting new development for a competition which, before this year, had primarily rewarded traditional portrait art. First-place Martin Endersby’s ‘Marquee’ represents concept art at its finest, using the translucent white linen as a symbol for the overlap between indoor and outdoor spaces – a pertinent image to consider as we remain in the shadow of lockdown.
Second-place Ananya Nair’s ‘Hands of Delicate Death’ took a comparably conceptual angle, focussing on how the story of Jauhar could transform our perception of a seemingly innocuous digital photograph of handprints in Chittorgarh Fort. The accessibility of this medium, requiring nothing more than a phone camera and a clear vision to enter, makes it perfect for widening participation in Durham’s previously elusive arts scene.
With such a range of innovative projects on display, this year’s line-up unquestionably featured an astonishing “breadth of brain input” – which Richard has described as the defining quality of the prize. Despite expecting contributions to display a “very physical manifestation” of the word, it was impossible to have any “idea what (the panel might) have triggered in minds of student when (they) set the theme” going into the judging.
Some of the most intriguing works included Shania Phillips’s ‘Un Visage de Fleurs’, an oil portrait classical in style, but postmodern in meaning, using a mask of flowers to conceal its subject’s face and challenge the male gaze. Just as successful in this regard was Ellen Wall-Row’s ‘Locked in/out’, a work that Richard credited with saying “an awful lot in a very simple photograph”, using her locked garden gate as a symbol for the social anxiety persisting after lockdown restrictions.
Less subtle, but just as poignant was the people’s vote choice, Amir Ghasemi’s ‘Out of sight, out of mind: The hidden homelessness’, where the charcoal medium was used to highlight groups overlooked by society – implicit in the smeared faceless figures walking by rough sleepers. Others entrants took more clear-cut psychological interpretations, particularly in the photography category. In her collage ‘A Fragile Mind’, Anna Jacob situated her depiction of apparent psychological breakdown in the seemingly ordinary surroundings of a bedroom.
With so many brilliant submissions this year, there can be no disputing Richard’s confident assertion that The Student Art Prize is “here to stay” and now ready to be placed on a “more solid footing”. Looking towards the future, the steering committee is particularly keen to improve the visibility of the competition by placing entries in colleges and incorporating more of the works into the university’s collection, which currently only takes on the winners. With acres of empty magnolia walls around the campus to fill, this would surely be a very welcome development.
The brilliant news is that with almost eighty entries this year, the strong support of Vice-Chancellor Karen O’Brien and some exciting plans for expansion, Durham University’s visual arts scene is beginning to look very formidable indeed.
All images licensed by Alix Collingwood-Swinburn
Main image: Adeline Zhao, ‘Grafton’