Prestigious art prize awarded to Nigerian artist

Artist Samuel Nnorom was announced as this year’s winner of the 2021 Cassirer Welz Award, conferred by the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, Johannesburg, in partnership with Strauss & Co.

As a small boy in Nigeria, multimedia artist Samuel Nnorom played with the colourful fabrics and sewing threads in his mother’s tailor shop. His father was a cobbler, and while assisting in the family workshop, Nnorom discovered a love of drawing by making sketches of his father’s clients.

During a Zoom ceremony on Monday this week, Nnorom was announced as this year’s winner of the 2021 Cassirer Welz Award, conferred by the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, Johannesburg, in partnership with Strauss & Co, the leading South African fine art auction house. Named after auctioneers Reinhold Cassirer and Stephan Welz, who pioneered the fine art auction business in this country, the annual award is presented to an artist from Africa working in the medium of painting, photography, drawing, or sculpture. Only artists under the age of 35 who are not already represented by a commercial gallery are eligible. In 2021, the competition was extended to artists outside the South African borders.

The selection jury, composed of Bag Factory programmes manager Gcotyelwa Mashiqa, communications manager Zanele Kumalo, Strauss executive director Susie Goodman and senior art specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg, unanimously agreed that Nnorom’s multimedia sculptures are exceptional. “He is one of the young contemporary artists in Africa to keep an eye on, and we believe the award will make a substantial contribution to his creative and professional growth,” says Goodman. The other outstanding finalists, Xanthè Jackson, Mpumelelo Buthelezi and Nthabiseng Bolde Kekana are to be congratulated on reaching the final four.

The influence of Nnorom’s parents’ vocations can be seen in his textured, layered, multi-media works. Ankara cloth, or African wax print, the colourful cotton cloth with batik-inspired motifs that is omnipresent in West-African fashion and traditional dress, is a key medium for Nnorom. He uses it to explore African identity within the multiversity of human experience – constellations of floating globes are covered in the characteristic cloth, and African traditional masks are surrounded by a riot of colourful print and lush, textured wall hangings that conjure images of ripening fruit.

The artist explains that the Ankara textiles become “the key that unlocks the impossibilities in my sculptural exploration in discussing my personal experiences.” He explains that his exploration of material and technique reflects the uncertainties of nature, life and society. He uses Ankara cloth and bubble shapes as “a visual voice, whilst using actions like sewing, rolling, tying, stringing, suspending, cutting, among others, as metaphors that illustrate the temporariness, impermanence and liminality of the human condition.”

Nnorom belongs to the New Nsukka School of Art and is especially vocal about the human rights violence in his country of birth. For the sculpture Black Magic, a chameleon constructed of bobbles of patterned fabric, the artist borrowed from Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution: “The universe has supplied us with connections to interact, bond and multiply, but we choose to fight it with racism, tribalism, ethnicism, boundaries, colours and language. If only we can accept that ‘variety is the spice of life’, then, let’s see one another as spices in the global space.”

Now in its eleventh year, the Cassirer Welz Award grants emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their talents to a broader audience. As this year’s winner, Nnorom receives a ten-week residency at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios and a sum of R 25 000 towards a residency stipend, materials, and production costs. New work created during the residency will be exhibited in a solo show to be held in 2022. 

“Since its inception, this award has seen the winners launch their careers and really start making a name for themselves within the South Africa art market,” says Goodman. Previous winners include artists such as Blessing Ngobeni, Nompumelelo Ngoma, Tshepo Mosopa, Asanda Kupa, Thato Nhlapho, Richard ‘Specs’ Ndimande and Keneilwe Mokoena.

“The award has passed its ten-year milestone, and despite unprecedented uncertainty in the midst of a global pandemic, Strauss Education has confirmed its continuing commitment to the award. “Now more than ever, Strauss & Co recognises the importance of supporting this initiative and extending the legacy of this prestigious development award for emerging artists in South Africa,” Goodman concludes.

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