The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fine Arts
Iman Issa thoroughly embodies a 21st-century template of the conceptual artist: The first step in her art-making process is posing knotty philosophical questions, which she then tries to clarify and work out through creating objects and installations. Issa grew up in Cairo in a household that supported analytical thinking, her father a physician and her mother a chemistry professor. As a college student, Issa was initially attracted to philosophy and political science, and she completed her degree in philosophy from the American University in Cairo in 2001. Her core interests lay in phenomenology—the branch of philosophy that deals with questions regarding the structures of consciousness that organize subjective experience, or how we take meaning from the things we individually experience. Issa might have gone on to continue her research in this field if she hadn’t had a life-changing experience when she came to the United States for the first time to spend a year at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At the age of 19, Issa won a scholarship to study at the university, and, in what she describes as “kind of a lucky thing,” was given a job as a guard in the Henry Art Gallery. There, Issa says, “I spent almost 11 months, three to four days a week, six to eight hours a day, looking at people looking at art.” She didn’t know very much about contemporary art at the time, and was amazed to find that it could accommodate those difficult philosophical questions she had been long considering. “All of a sudden I realized that it was a field that actually could—where all of the things I was interested in—could come together in a way I couldn’t find in other fields I was looking at,” she says. Issa was especially inspired by Allan Sekula’s artwork Fish Story, which created a complex web of visual and verbal devices to construct an experience of global exchange. When she returned to Cairo, she immersed herself in making art, through photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking, though she was somewhat limited by her very technically oriented program.
Issa was given the opportunity to further engage her ideas when she was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University in 2005; there, she could discuss her ideas with the artists and curators who made frequent visits. She became very interested in the question of how to convey one’s personal relationship to places, figures, and events that are collectively familiar. This led to her working with monuments and memorials, and inventing her own as a way to explore how objects made with a personal, subjective vision might have collective use. At the foundation of this work is a query about the difference between experience and recognition, and whether the viewer can recognize an object as familiar though it has not been experienced before.
Her explorations have earned Issa shows in prestigious institutions including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Perez Art Museum, 8th Berlin Biennial, the New Museum, and the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, and awards including the DAAD 2017 Artist in Residence Award, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, and the HNF-MACBA Award. Though she has accumulated these accolades, winning the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise is something Issa did not expect. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am,” she says. “It’s hard to find the precise words.” This is well and good, because Issa continues to explore how to use objects to communicate to pose the crucial question: How do we recognize what we think we know?
A Message from Jan and Marica Vilcek
Our founders arrived as penniless refugees over fifty years ago, but with the kindness and opportunity they received in the United States, they went on to accomplish great things in biomedical science and art history. Read their statement on the recent executive order imposing a travel ban.
The Vilcek Prize
Our commemorative prizes are each uniquely designed by Austrian-born designer Stefan Sagmeister, a testament to the individual achievements of each prizewinner. Watch a behind-the-scenes video on how the Vilcek Prize is made.