Laudation, read by Jan Dibbets
Excellencies, distinguished guests, and, on behalf of the Award jury, dear laureates:
We are here this evening to honour John Akomfrah and Charles Esche, whose compelling work subverts the simplified image of our European past, valuing those experiences and expressions that are routinely overlooked. Akomfrah and Esche’s work unlocks the radical potential of the archive. We see how the archive is an active medium for telling and retelling memories, for sharing them in a wider European – and, indeed, global – cultural space.
John Akomfrah is a pioneering, hugely influential filmmaker and cultural activist. With great dexterity, his work shows us how simplistic notions of difference – such as black versus white, centre versus periphery – have been historically fabricated. Akomfrah casts an honest and, at times, loving eye on the protagonists of European migration. His early, celebrated film, ‘Handsworth Songs’, made in collaboration with the Black Audio Film Collective, is both poetic and searing in its analysis of Imperialism, of the typecasting of the migrant in mainstream media and political discourse.
Akomfrah has gone on to produce a vital body of work that interweaves stories: of the migrants of Empire, of the Irish literary exiles Joyce and Beckett, of that preeminent wanderer of Western literature, Odysseus. At all points his work defies purist notions of cultural identity. Its focus is on the experience of becoming, the capacity to change: and this has meaning for us all.
Charles Esche has shown exceptional leadership in rethinking the museum as a public space. He has, so to speak, shaken the place up, reaching new audiences within and beyond the museum’s walls. For Esche the museum is a meeting ground between art and people. The approach of Esche and his curatorial team proves that culture is a living system of values that is forever changing as we enter into conversation with it.
The award goes to Esche for the work he has done throughout his professional life as a key independent curator and critical voice. Currently the Director of Eindhoven’s Van
Abbemuseum, Esche has enlivened cultural life in Glasgow, Malmo, and elsewhere. He has set up networks with many artists across the world. His exceptional work demonstrates the transformative potential of the cultural institution. And indeed he has led the way in transforming our understanding of the museum. We see now clearly how it can be a site of hospitality; a place of genuine learning and active imagining.
The jury meeting in early September last year proved a hard day’s work, and almost a hard day’s night. Those nominated for cultural excellence were worthy candidates, but in our two laureates honoured here this evening we found the best examples of inspirational voices, inspirers of political imagination, and leaders of debate on the social realities of contemporary Europe. We salute their achievement and the legacy of their bold vision.