Sudanese-Norwegian Artist and Activist Ahmed Umar Wins Prestigious Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel 2024

Left to right: Thomas von Planta, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Baloise; Tiffany Sia, winner of the 25th Baloise Art Prize; Ahmed Umar, winner of the 25th Baloise Art Prize; and Clemens Markstein, CEO of Baloise in Switzerland. Photo: Michael Hochreutene.

The 25th annual Baloise Art Prize, presented by the Swiss banking and insurance group in collaboration with Art Basel, has honored Sudanese-Norwegian artist and activist Ahmed Umar, alongside Hong Kong artist and filmmaker Tiffany Sia. The announcement, made during the Art Basel fair, highlights Umar’s impactful work in the contemporary art scene.

Umar, who was born in Sudan and raised in Saudi Arabia, currently resides in Oslo, where he creates art that explores and transforms materials and references to Islam into what Art Basel contributor Tifenn Durand describes as ‘poetic and spiritual forms.’ His winning installation, “Glowing Phalanges/Forbidden Prayers,” features cliché souvenirs reworked and arranged like prayer beads in various poses. This piece examines the complexity of Islam and the diverse ways it is practiced, challenging the notion that spirituality is confined to traditional objects.

Picture of Ahmed Umar (Courtesy of Baloise Art Prize, )
Picture of Ahmed Umar (Courtesy of Baloise Art Prize, )

The Baloise Art Prize, which comes with a CHF 30,000 cash award (approximately USD 33,400), also promises institutional placement for the winners’ works. Umar’s installation will be acquired by the Baloise Group and donated to the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt, ensuring that his thought-provoking art reaches a wider audience.

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Exhibition view: Ahmed Umar, OSL contemporary at Art Basel Statements (13–16 June 2024). Courtesy Art Basel. Photo: André Räubig.

Umar’s work, showcased by OSL Contemporary Gallery at Art Basel’s ‘Statements’ sector, stood out among 18 nominees. This sector is dedicated to emerging galleries and artists, providing a platform for innovative and boundary-pushing contemporary art. The selection process was rigorous, with more than 250 applications reviewed annually.

The Baloise Art Prize jury included prominent figures in the art world, such as Ann Demeester, Director of Kunsthaus Zürich; Karola Kraus, General Director of MUMOK Vienna; Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Curator and Head of Collection at MUDAM Luxembourg; Susanne Pfeffer, Director of MMK Frankfurt; and Uli Sigg, a renowned Swiss arts patron.

Umar’s recognition at Art Basel is a testament to his unique artistic voice and his role as an LGBTQ activist. His journey from Sudan to becoming a Venice Biennale breakout star and now a Baloise Art Prize laureate underscores the global impact of his work.

This accolade not only celebrates Umar’s artistic achievements but also reinforces the significance of art as a medium for cultural dialogue and social change. As Umar’s work continues to gain international recognition, it sheds light on important issues of identity, spirituality, and the complexities of cultural practice.

The 2024 Baloise Art Prize, with its focus on emerging artists and commitment to institutional support, highlights the evolving landscape of contemporary art and the vital contributions of artists like Ahmed Umar in shaping its future.

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