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The Chaiya Art Awards

The Chaiya Art Awards

by Jonathan Evens

Every so often something unexpected appears from left field to surprise you. The Chaiya Art Awards have something of that unanticipated nature.

Since 1951 Australia has had a prize, The Blake Prize, which encourages conversation about religion and spirituality through art, yet Britain has not had an equivalent and, until 2017, there was no indication that an equivalent was likely to emerge. Yet in 2016, on the very day that her mother died, Katrina Moss woke up with the idea for the Chaiya Art Awards, which developed into a national art competition with a £10,000 top prize, to bring spirituality-based art back into the mainstream arena.

An awards scheme such as this could provide opportunities for the public to encounter thought-provoking and Holy Spirit-inspired creativity, by making it intriguing and accessible to all – those from the Christian faith, those from other faiths or those with no faith at all. The awards could enable engagement with today’s artists, sparking their imagination to explore the mysteries of God.

After discussing the idea with others, including artists and art organisers, Katrina realised that to launch a new national art initiative, put on an exhibition in a mainstream London gallery with an accompanying coffee table-style book all in an 18-month time frame, was a very tall order. Respected art judges, a curator, a venue, a publisher, sponsorship and a team to implement publicity and administration would all be needed.

Peter Codling: Naivety

The Chaiya Art Awards 2018 proved hugely popular, with over 450 entries and more than 2,700 exhibition visitors. Footfall for exhibitions after the opening night is often low, but that wasn’t the case with this exhibition. Bringing in the numbers achieved was a considerable result. The exhibition opening was one where those present were really looking at the work – not going just to be seen – and really wanting to explore the theme ‘Where is God in our 21st-century world?’ Five awards were made with the overall winner being a ceramics installation ‘A Thousand Bottles of Tears’ by Deborah Tompsett. A video piece (David Theobold’s ‘Modern Wonder’), a charcoal drawing (Peter Codling’s ‘Naivety’) and a sculpture (Maxwell Rushton’s ‘Left Out’) were among the other prize-winning pieces.

Deborah Thompsett: Thousand Bottles of Tears

Katrina has said: ‘I set up the project to uncover and promote gifted artists looking to explore spirituality, faith and social change through their creativity. It was a delight to see that fulfilled in the artwork we received in 2018.’ She notes that no negative feedback at all was received and many people said they were just so pleased that the exhibition had been put on.

With each judging panel she aims to get a mix of people with and without faith. The judges are not asked to select to an agenda and they have no sight of the artist’s biographies. The judges choose the prize winners while Katrina and the curator choose the pieces for the exhibition. She thinks this seems to be very fair as a system being genuinely open and not dependent on reputations.

Artists with established reputations do submit but the awards enable much work to be shown that wouldn’t normally be seen in mainstream galleries, simply because there isn’t generally an outlet for artwork that speaks of faith. Katrina hopes to see that culture change over time. She has a belief in the power of the arts as a positive force for communities. The arts, when clichés are avoided, communicate to the deepest part of us as human beings. She anticipates that the theme ‘God is …’ will generate non-obvious responses and, as before, will include pieces that question the existence of God but God is still the pivot. As Bono has suggested, we are all either running towards or away from God.

One person viewing ‘A Thousand Bottles of Tears’ said, ‘I don’t know what it is about this piece, but I can’t move away from it.’ Another person viewing Karl Newman’s 'Seek and you shall find', an image of a hut in a Swedish forest, spoke of getting tingles down his spine as he looked. Maxwell Rushton’s ‘Left Out’, which won the 2018 Public Vote Award, certainly touched people emotionally. Some initially queried why a bag of rubbish had been left in the gallery, others simply didn’t notice it and then realised that homeless people themselves are often overlooked in the same way.

Karl Newman: Seek and you shall find

It wasn’t just the winning works that affected people however. ‘Admitting the possibilities of error’ by Kirsten Lavers began with an attempt to draw a perfect circle but quickly became jagged, not rounded. This was not a showy piece. It was deeply quiet and introspective and needed viewers prepared to look and read and think. ‘Seek and ye shall find’ was also inwardly still and spoke into the constant bombardment of images we receive. Rachel Ho’s ‘Scarred’ pots tell stories of healing and redemption by reflecting on the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a concept of highlighting or emphasizing imperfections with the addition of pure gold to celebrate the healing and story brought about by our wounds, brokenness and flaws. Such works spoke in amazing ways that people simply weren’t expecting.

The Chaiya Art Awards is open to any artist and covers all mediums including painting, drawing sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, mixed media, photography and video. Entrants are invited to be authentic and daring as they respond to the theme ‘God is …’. There are other cash prizes as well as the main £10,000 award, including £1,000 for the Public’s Choice from the gallery exhibition. A new category for Community Groups, who can submit a collaborative piece, has also been introduced.

The culmination will be an exhibition over Easter 2020 at London’s prestigious gallery@oxo. Consisting of all shortlisted entrants it will run from 10 to 19 April 2020. As previously a hard-back coffee-table book will complement the exhibition. Written by Ann Clifford, this will feature all those shortlisted along with reflections on the theme. The book is ‘for the curious and open-minded, for people of all faiths and none’ and, like the exhibition, will be ‘bursting with richness and diversity, vulnerability and exploration, colour and fragility, treasure and beauty.’

See https://chaiyaartawards.co.uk/ for more information or to submit work.