Ibrahim Mahama Wins Dia’s Inaugural Sam Gilliam Award

The Dia Art Foundation in New York has announced that Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has won the inaugural Sam Gilliam Award, which comes with $75,000 and a public program at one of Dia’s locations this fall. 

The Sam Gilliam Award was established last year by the late artist’s foundation and his widow, Annie Gawlak, who serves as president of the foundation. With plans to dole out the prize annually for the next decade, the award will go to “an artist working anywhere in the world who has made a significant contribution in any medium and for whom the award would be transformative,” according to a release. 

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This distinction in many ways is meant to honor Gilliam’s own legacy. Beginning in the 1960s, Gilliam unfurled canvases from their stretches and hung his abstractions loose, often draping them in the center of rooms. Gilliam, who died in 2022 at 88, is now considered one of most significant artists working in the latter part of the 20th century.

Gilliam’s work has had an institutional resurgence in recent years, with Dia acquiring displaying major works by Gilliam at its Beacon location from 2019 until 2022. Ultimately, the foundation jointly acquired Double Merge (1968) for its permanent collection with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 

In a statement, Gawlak said, “Sam’s role as an educator and advocate for other artists, especially young and emerging, was of central importance to him and a critical component of his life’s work, and we are honored to continue his legacy in championing rising artists.Dia is the ideal partner for advancing Sam’s vision.”

Mahama is best-known for his use of jute sacks that he has transformed into monumental installations, as he did at the 2015 Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Mahama typically stitches together these found jute sacks and drapes them over various architectural structures, as he has done in different cities across Ghana. Mahama also works collaboratively, as his materials are sourced communally, and he uses the money earned from his artwork to support the economy and institutions in Tamale, Ghana, where he was born. 

Mahama said, in a statement, that since his mentor Kąrî’kạchä Seid’ou introduced him to Gilliam’s work, which “has been greatly influential to me ever since. The most important aspect of any community is to share their many gifts, even if they are born out of precarity, for within that point do we expand freedom to all life forms.”

He was chosen by a five-member that included Gawlak; Jordan Carter, Dia curator and co–department head; Emiliano Valdés, chief curator at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín in Colombia; Zoé Whitley, director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London; and Courtney J. Martin, the recently appointed director of the Rauschenberg Foundation and a previous chief curator and deputy director of Dia. 

The jury selected Mahama from a pool of artists “in response to his continuous growth as an artist, in terms of the complexity, scale, and responsiveness to site in his multifaceted material practice, as well the meaningful impact of his ambitious work as a community-oriented practitioner,” according to a release. 

In a statement, Dia director Jessica Morgan said, “Mahama champions collaboration in his work; just as he gives renewed purpose to the materials he collects and recycles into artworks, he revitalizes his communities by turning castoff structures into institutions for convening, learning, art-making, and collective growth. This award honors both sides of his sophisticated practice.”

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