Interrogating the World: Deutsche Börse 2024

The prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. For the past two decades, the award has been given annually to an artist considered to have made the “most significant” contribution to photography over the previous 12 months. Lebohang Kganye (b. 1990) is this year’s winner, joining a powerful shortlist that investigates and interrogates our world. Engaging with issues such as the aftermath of war, decolonisation, displacement and gender, this year’s other finalists were VALIE EXPORT (b. 1940); the photographer-painter duo Gauri Gill (b. 1970) and Rajesh Vangad (b. 1975); and Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973). They push the limits of the camera by harnessing multimedia approaches, drawing attention to inequity and violence through interdisciplinarity.

Spread across two floors of the gallery, the presentation begins with Syrian-born Hrair Sarkissian, whose practice explores personal and political experiences of conflict and displacement. Last Seen (2018-2021) is a testament to people who have disappeared in times of conflict, and the families who are left waiting, unsure of their return. The images of rooms and hallways evoke a shrine-like quality. Deathscape (2021) is an audio installation that captures the sound of bodies being exhumed from the mass graves of the Spanish Civil War. Stepping into a black room surrounded by five-channel audio, one only needs to close their eyes to be transported to an archaeological dig site, complete with its musty smell and other sensory elements.

Austrian-born VALIE EXPORT’s seminal works, including TOUCH CINEMA (1968) and Body Configurations (1972), introduce viewers to the practice of an avant-garde feminist performance artist who uses her body to challenge artistic and societal norms. Some of EXPORT’s performance pieces rest on viewer engagement. In TOUCH CINEMA, she wore a box resembling a TV over her bare chest and invited people on the street to touch her naked upper torso, thereby challenging sexual politics and the representation of women in mass media. This presentation was not intended to titillate; rather, the brazen display of EXPORT’s body was designed to make the viewer question the politics behind “looking.”

The second floor comprises a selection of works by Indian artist-duo Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad, whose collaboration began in an Adivasi village along the coast of Maharashtra, India, in 2013. By combining photography and Warli painting, Gill and Vangad’s Fields of Sight offers a counter-narrative to the “prevailing colonial discourses that have historically ignored the voices of the Indigenous population.” This collaborative project also serves as a reminder to preserve Adivasi knowledge, craft and traditions. Finally, the exhibition closes with installations by South African visual artist Lebohang Kganye, this year’s winner. Kganye crafts life-size cutout figures from archival photographs; the resulting installations recreate scenes from family stories that feature her grandparents and ancestral home. Kganye’s installations examine what it means to belong within the wider political context of apartheid and colonialism in South Africa.

Multi-artist exhibitions can sometimes feel overwhelming, but, here, the gallery space is not cluttered with images or objects. The Photographers’ Gallery offers a considered viewing experience and audiences are able to take their time with the pieces on display. “Less is more” was an appropriate way curate this most important and affecting of shows, giving viewers time to properly process and absorb the subject matter.

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2024.
The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 2 June.

Words: Shyama Laxman

Image Credits:
1. The Eye in the Sky, 2016, from the series Fields of Sight 2013-ongoing © Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad.
2. VALIE EXPORT – SMART EXPORT Self-Portrait, 1970 © VALIE EXPORT, Bildrecht Wien, 2024, Photo: Gertraud Wolfschwenger.
3. Mohlokomedi wa Tora, 2018, Scene 2 © Lebohang Kganye. Courtesy of the artist