And winner of the Artes Mundi £40,000 is...

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An Israeli artist who specialises in creating poignant video instillations documenting Jewish identity has won one of Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art prizes.

At a ceremony in Cardiff last night Yael Bartana, a 40-year-old artist who divides her time between Israel and Amsterdam, was awarded the Artes Mundi, one of Britain’s most valuable and prestigious art prizes.

Although it is less well known than the Turner Prize, the Artes Mundi is one of the most lucrative modern art prizes in the world with winners taking home a £40,000 cheque and a major boost to their international reputation.

It is presented once every two years and primarily celebrates artists who comment on the society around them. Over the years its stature has grown and is generally regarded as an equally respected, but generally less sensationalist, contender to the Turner.

The five judges praised Bartana for her work over the past eight years which, they said, “has consistently stimulated thinking about the human condition and adds to our understanding of humanity.”

Professor Sarat Maharaj, a Swedish academic who chaired the judges, said last night: ““We live in an age where we are frequently asked to face tribal and territorial concerns and where national and regional boundaries are disputed with devastating consequences. Yael Bartana has continually found inventive strategies to question the abstract idea of a nation’s collective identity - a question that is fundamental to the human condition.”

The prize was founded by William Wilkins, a Welsh artist who wanted to create an art competition that would celebrate lesser known international artists and give a boost to Welsh art. Over 480 artists from 80 different countries were long listed for the prize which was later whittled down to eight finalists. Their work has been mounted at the National Museum Cardiff for the past three months and will remain on display until 6 June.

This year’s shortlist was entirely international with no finalists from Britain. Many of the artists who made it to the finals live or grew up in former Soviet Bloc countries, documenting how their fledgling states have developed over the past two decades. Video instillations and photography also featured prominently in this year’s Artes Mundi, the fourth time the prize has been awarded.

Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, an artistic duo from Kyrgyzstan who made the finals, specialise in video instillations documenting how the fall of Communism has affected ordinary life in the poorest and least resource-rich member of Central Asia. Other former-Soviet Bloc nominees included Bulgaria’s Ergin Cavusoglu, another film specialist, Russia’s Olga Chernysheva and Adrian Paci from Albania.

Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen specialises in often provocative photographs delving into how globalisation affects the lives of poor workers who often migrate far from their hometowns to find work.

Peruvian artist Fernando Bryce, meanwhile, gave up painting a decade ago to devote himself to creating works in Indian ink that often cast a mocking eye on the way written media conveys perceptions of a country.

Bartana was born in 1970 in Afula, a conservative municipality in Israel. She spent the late 1990s in New York before returning to Israel to begin documenting life through video, sound and photographic instillations. She explores the details of everyday living and its rituals while relating them to the actions of the state and the constant presence of war and insecurity. She is currently overseeing a new instillation and was unable to collect the prize in Cardiff last night.

Unlike the Turner Prize, which celebrates artists working in Britain, the Artes Mundi can go to any artist working anywhere in the world. A British national has yet to win it. Previous winners so far include Indian national NS Harsha in 2008, Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila in 2006 and China’s Xu Bing in 2004.

Tessa Jackson, founding Artistic Director of Artes Mundi said: “The purpose of this Prize is not only to recognise deserving talent, but also to introduce a wider range of artists to the British art scene, extending their reach and broadening our horizons.”

Click here or on the image above to see the winning entry and the shorlist

The Artes Mundi exhibition at the National Museum of Cardiff runs until 6 June 2010, opening hours 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, entry is free. www.museumofwales.ac.uk

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