The votes are in: Meleko Mokgosi, a 30-year-old painter who was born and raised in Botswana and is now based in Los Angeles, has become the first recipient of the Hammer Museum’s Mohn Award, given for outstanding artwork in the museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial.
Chosen through an unusual combination of jury selection and popular vote, Mokgosi will receive a book about his work and $100,000 split over two years — one of the largest prizes for visual artists anywhere.
Museum director Ann Philbin praised Mokgosi’s work, a 10-canvas series that wraps around three walls inside the museum, as a powerful combination of “beautiful and brutal” at once. “His work is a form of historical painting that comes from various stories of postcolonial Africa. We might not know the particular references to slaughtering cows in the 19th century, but we do feel the tension and understand that they are paintings about resistance.”
In a recent Art in America article online, critic Yael Lipschutz described his contribution to the show as a portrait of Africa that reflects the artist’s “unusual social realism, involving both crisply rendered figures from African society and politics, and passages of raw empty canvas.”
“Rather than emulating journalistic set pieces with fixed story frames, Mokgosi’s paintings come to us as detective stories or dreamscapes from a faraway continent,” she wrote.
The award, like the “Made in L.A.” biennial itself (which runs through Sept. 2), is in its first year. But the award’s funders, contemporary art collectors Jarl and Pamela Mohn, have pledged to support it for at least four more exhibitions.
A jury of curators consisting of Doryun Chong of the Museum of Modern Art, Cecilia Alemani of the High Line Art Program, Rita Gonzalez of the L.A. County Museum of Art and Anthony Huberman (independent) selected five artists of the 60 in the show for the award. The other artists selected, which museum visitors could then vote for, were Simone Forti, Liz Glynn, Erika Vogt and the art-collective Slanguage (Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz).
All artists are based in L.A., though Mokgosi is currently living in New York for a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Out of roughly 50,000 people who visited the show before voting closed on Aug. 12, 4,300 registered to vote. But only 2,051 people actually voted through a website set up for that purpose. (Full disclosure: This reporter was one of them, which I did to check out the process. There were no technical glitches, and I voted for an artist who didn’t win.)
Museum staff acknowledged that voter turnout was smaller than they had hoped. They also said they might not continue the same voting process in its 2014 biennial because of concerns raised by artists in the show and those on a museum advisory council.
“We’re going to continue the award, there’s no question about that. The question is how,” Philbin said. She described hearing from some artists in the show who were uneasy about the popular vote component as well as getting feedback from visitors who said they wished they could vote for anyone in the show, not just the five chosen for them.
So the hybrid voting process, which combined the opinions of art-world cognoscenti and public sentiment, got flak for both components.
“It’s really interesting. In a way we could decide to have the public vote completely or not have the public vote at all.” Philbin said. “As a result, we will have a lot of conversations going forward.”