by Bongo MeiJan 27, 2023
Annually hosted by Amref Health Africa, the ArtBall event has consistently highlighted the vibrant culture of the African continent and the fifth edition was no exception. Since its inception in the United States, the ArtBall has established a healthy relationship between African culture and philanthropy, celebrating the human resources of the continent. The event features contemporary African art auction, entertainment, an awards ceremony, and a panel discussion featuring top experts from the arts field. For those unfamiliar with Amref Health Africa, it is the largest Africa-based healthcare non-profit with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Over the years, it has successfully served millions of people, across 35 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and their community-driven approach focuses on health systems and training African health workers to respond to the continent’s most critical health challenges. This year, Amref Health Africa honoured the globally established Ethiopian American contemporary artist Julie Mehretu with the Rees Visionary Award.
Currently working in New York City and Berlin, Mehretu has been on a journey to study the palimpsest aspect of history, with the spectrum of her artistic practice ranging from ‘geological time’ to ‘phenomenology’ of societal understanding in the modern day. To her, the built environment is not another embodiment of concrete and cement; rather it bespeaks the matrix of history, knowledge, and power. Following a similar vein, and being a documenter of the bygone era, Mehretu excavates archival stories from rich architectural sources, including ancient city plans, civic buildings, urban designs, public squares, tombs and palaces. This becomes a source of inspiration for her paintings when they are combined with her impromptu graphic drawings, giving rise to a fantastical topography punctuated by lines, colour, markings, grids and characters, giving a new life to our world of inhabitancy.
Her contributions to the field of visual arts have been continuously recognised by various authoritative institutions, devoted to promoting the value of arts, including—The MacArthur Award; The American Art Award granted by The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Rhode Island School of Design Alumni Council Artistic Achievement Award, the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award, among others. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York represents her works globally.
Mehretu was selected for the award based on how, as a contemporary artist , she examines the impact of our current lived experiences on our futures, which is in sync with the core tenants of Amref Health Africa. An organisation for Africans, by Africans, Amref is constantly looking towards the future, devising how we can adapt and evolve to changing needs—in our communities, our countries, and our continent. Named after their late founder, surgeon and artist Dr. Thomas Rees, the Director, Development and Communications of Amref, Emily Correale, walks us through the selection process of the Rees Visionary Award, "The Rees is given to artists we feel are creating exceptional work that educates, inspires, and emboldens the viewer through these challenging times. Past honorees have included Wangechi Mutu, El Anatsui, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Zanele Muholi. Every year we are in discussion with art curators and stakeholders on who we should honour next.”
Natalie Kates, the curator and director of ArtBall and the co-founder of the Kates-Ferri Projects, has been with Amref since they began the event years ago, and has been a fixture in the NYC contemporary art scene since the 1980s. Recognising the importance of arts in the field of healthcare, Kates affirms the fact that visual arts have extraordinary powers to heal—they can engage, uplift, calm and can inspire imagination and the heart.
Numerous studies in the fields of healthcare, art therapy, psychology, and neuroscience provide data demonstrating the incredible healing power of art and its ability to both help patients be present as well as reframe their consciousness, focus, and positive outlook on life. “While art therapy has been an accepted practice for years, traditionally, doctors heal the body through medicine while art heals the soul. But, many medical professionals now understand the direct connection between the arts and healing. For example, doctors in Brussels and Montreal are prescribing museum visits to their patients struggling with mental stress. As the benefits of the arts become more widely acknowledged, the connections between the arts and health continue to grow. It is exciting,” shares Kates.
While talking about the precedent set by Mehretu for the future winners, Kates declares that all past winners of the Rees Visionary Award too, have been visionaries in their field. Over her storied career, Mehretu’s work has helped elevate the profile of visual artists, born in the African continent, in ways that are hard to quantify. “More than just being an African artist, her work speaks to our combined position in an interconnected global world. Mehretu's use of multimedia presents a visual representation of the complexities of life informed by a variety of factors including culture, people, and places. Her work highlights the strength of her African heritage as it speaks a common language that opens all of our hearts and minds. We are honoured to celebrate Mehretu's exemplary work,” mentions Kates. Beyond that, Mehretu’s work is extremely important as a beautiful interpretation and record of modern society, created from her unique multicultural experiences and perspective.