Artes Mundi, National Museum, Cardiff

All the world gathered in Wales
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The Independent Culture

The biennial Artes Mundi, the Welsh international art exhibition and prize, has become a hub of serious contemporary art. This third competition is no exception.

Lida Abdul was born in Kabul in 1973 and fled after the Soviet invasion, living in Germany and India before moving to the United States. Her lyrical films, set in the rocky wastelands of Afghanistan, use damaged architecture as a poignant metaphor for human destruction and suffering. Brick Sellers of Kabul shows a line of windswept boys selling bricks gleaned from ruins to build new buildings.

In contrast, the Portuguese artist Vasco Araújo employs a mix of media to investigate different aspects of the human condition. Porcelain figurines from junk shops have been placed in museum cases alongside texts from the Marquis de Sade, in a sort of mock-salon setting, to talk about incest; meanwhile, a video shows a young girl in a white dress playing with dusty bones in a deserted children's sanatorium that dates from Salazar's regime, in an evocation of lost histories.

The most knowing of the works is one by the young Romanian artist Mircea Cantor. His film, Deeparture, depicts an empty gallery in which a wolf and a deer circle each other suspiciously. Making reference to Joseph Beuys' notorious performance with coyotes, it subverts expectations of what would normally be a predatory scene.

Another of the nominees is the Scottish collaboration Dalziel and Scullion, who use photography, video and sculpture to explore the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, and encourage the viewer to experience nature as if they were part of the flora and fauna.

A degree of humour is provided by the Indian artist NS Harsha, whose six-panel painting Come Give Us a Speech looks like an Indian miniature writ large. Not only does it contain details of daily life but, on closer inspection, witty references to world events and art history.

Abdoulaye Konaté was born and raised in Mali, then went to Cuba to train as an abstract painter. Now, he has turned to making large-scale textiles as a pragmatic response to the availability of cotton and the difficulty of obtaining oil or acrylic. Using traditional materials with a sophisticated eye, he brings together both Western aesthetics and local concerns.

Susan Norrie is an Australian artist whose powerful video work, HAVOC, depicts a town in East Java made uninhabitable by a ceaseless, and apparently unstoppable, geyser of hot mud, which appeared after drilling for gas and oil. The work melds documentary footage with large videos that borrow from Romanticism and myth.

Elsewhere, the work of Rosângela Rennó from Rio de Janeiro explores people from the margins of society through old images gleaned from newspapers, police files and family albums. Her installation – made up of 39 photographs of Cuban newlyweds from the Eighties – turns an intimate moment into something staged.

From the outset, Artes Mundi decided to celebrate artists whose work discussed the human condition. Such a baggy definition might have been risky. In fact, it has allowed a broad spectrum of mostly emerging artists to make work that is brave, subtle and demanding, and that addresses human truths and political dilemmas free from easy art-world clichés. An overall winner for the £40,000 prize will be selected from the shortlist by an international panel.

To 8 June (029-2039 7951; www.artesmundi.org)

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