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Moroccan artist ‘empowering’ rural communities awarded prestigious contemporary African art prize

By Callum Sutherland, CNN

(CNN) — The Norval Sovereign African Art Prize, designed to elevate the work of contemporary African artists, has found its latest artist to thrust into the spotlight.

Inspired by Moroccan architecture and created using local textile workshops, “Portal #1” by Amina Agueznay was chosen as the winner for this year’s edition of the art prize, from a total of 27 nominees.

“I’m over the moon and honored more than anything else,” Agueznay told CNN, who put a modern spin on traditional Moroccan patterns in her artwork.

South African judge Ashraf Jamal said in a press release: “After hours of deep reflection the jury stayed true to the greater goal of the prize – the choice of an artist with an enduring vision of the lives and triumphs of women of the African desert.”

The work draws inspiration from patterns etched into doors found in southern Morocco, explained the artist. These designs were spotted by Agueznay when she visited the ksar, a fortified village, in the town of Tissekmoudine.

The Moroccan artist was invited to the ksar as architect Salima Naji was renovating its structure. It was here that she was introduced to local berber women who would go on to weave Agueznay’s design with wool and palm tree husks from nearby oases.

“Working with these women, this human dimension is super important for me,” Agueznay said. “I basically wanted to bring the architecture inside my project, as I used to be an architect.”

The context of how it was created is crucial for the artist. “The work you see is very graphic, there’s a jagged edge motif that you generally find in rugs in Morocco,” she added. “But for me, what’s more important is the process, the stories behind (how) this work is made.”

Agueznay, who is represented by the Loft Art Gallery in Casablanca, also said that her own modifications of the weaving are part of what makes this work contemporary. “When it’s produced and comes back to me, I rediscovered the pattern,” she said. “In the center, I cut extensively to show the jagged edge. My hand, as the artist, finishes the work.”

The Moroccan feels that the prize not only helps her, but the community she has worked with and others that she plans to in the future.

“This prize is going to enable me to continue my work,” she said. “Beyond the recognition it will enable me to continue to empower other communities.”

A platform for African art

Caroline Greyling, museum director at The Norval Foundation, believes the prize is an important platform for contemporary African art. “It’s a collaboration for African artists to expose their work, position them within the global art landscape and also give them the opportunity to exhibit a representation of contemporary African art,” she said.

Agueznay is the third artist to win the prize, following Malian painter Famakan Magassa and South African sculptor Bonolo Kavula. She takes home $35,000 in prize money, and has been awarded an artist residency in London, supported by the Outset Contemporary Art Fund.

Along with the winning piece, the other 26 shortlisted artworks will be auctioned via an online benefit hosted by Sotheby’s over the course of the next week, with proceeds going to both the artists and the Norval Foundation Learning Centre. The learning center, based in South Africa, educates disadvantaged children on art and other life skills.

“I have so much respect for everybody who’s nominated … the way they work and sculpt is just so incredible. I think there’s a lot more that’s going to come out of this beautiful continent,” Agueznay added.

All of the nominated artworks will be on exhibition at the Norval Foundation art museum in Cape Town until May 12.

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