Ibrahim Mahama Announced as the Inaugural Sam Gilliam Award Winner

The annual prize was established in the memory of the late painter and sculptor.

Man in red suit stands in large dark warehouse
Mahama in 2022. Photo © Carlos Idun-Tawiah

Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist known for his monumental textile installations, has been announced as the inaugural recipient of the Sam Gilliam Award.

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The prize was established last year with a gift from the Sam Gilliam Foundation, which partnered with the Dia Art Foundation to carry on the late painter’s legacy with an annual artist prize. As the first winner, Mahama will receive $75,000 and present his work in a public program at Dia this fall.

Mahama was selected due to his community-oriented practice and the complexity and scale of his installations. “The most important aspect of any community is to share their many gifts, even if they are born out of precarity, for within that point do we expand freedom to all life forms,” said Mahama, whose public projects often include collaborations with Ghanian craftspeople, in a statement.

Birds eye view of long purple ribbons spread across racing track
Ibrahim Mahama, Purple Hibiscus, (2023-24). Courtesy Ibrahim Mahama, Red Clay Tamale , Barbican Centre, London and White Cube.

The artist, who uses found objects and textiles to create projects commenting on themes of commodity, economic exchange and migration, also noted his admiration for Gilliam, who died in 2022. “I was first introduced to Gilliam’s important work as a student by my mentor Kąrî’kạchä Seid’ou, and it has been greatly influential to me ever since,” he said.

Mahama’s work has been exhibited in institutions and fairs including the Venice Biennale, Documenta 14, Centre Pompidou, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and KNUST Museum in Kumasi, Ghana. His upcoming shows include a commission for London’s Barbican Centre, which opens next month and will cover its facade with pink and purple hand-woven fabrics, and a solo exhibition at Edinburgh Fruitmarket Gallery scheduled for July.

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The five-person panel that selected Mahama for the Sam Gilliam Award consisted of Jordan Carter, curator and co-department head at Dia; Courtney J. Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art; Emiliano Valdés, chief curator at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín; Zoé Whitley, director of Chisenhale Gallery; and Annie Gawlak, Gilliam’s widow and president of the Sam Gilliam Foundation.

“Mahama champions collaboration in his work; just as he gives renewed purpose to the materials he collects and recycles into artworks, he revitalizes his communities by turning castoff structures into institutions for convening, learning, art-making and collective growth,” commented Dia director Jessica Morgan in a statement. “This award honors both sides of his sophisticated practice.”

Carrying on Sam Gilliam’s legacy

Man stands next to large outdoor art installation of colorful fabric
Sam Gilliam with his installation Custom Road Slide, Artpark, Lewiston, New York, 1977. Photo: Andrew L. Strout, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery

Gilliam rose to fame in the 1960s as a central figure in the Washington, D.C. art scene. His innovative practice later moved painting beyond a two-dimensional realm as he experimented with draped canvases and beveled-edged paintings.

The creation of the Sam Gilliam Award was motivated by the support Gilliam received from artist prizes throughout his career. He received grants from the National Endowment of Arts, the Longview Foundation Award, Art Institute of Chicago’s Norman W. Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards.

Gilliam also had close ties to Dia, which presented a major installation of his work from 2019 to 2022 and in 2019 rearranged two of his drape paintings to form the piece Double Merge, which it acquired in 2021. The nonprofit, which focuses on supporting ambitious artistic projects outside the limitations of traditional museums and galleries, is the “ideal partner for advancing Sam’s vision,” according to a statement from Gawlak.

“Sam’s role as an educator and advocate for other artists, especially young and emerging, was of central importance to him and a critical component of his life’s work, and we are honored to continue his legacy in championing rising artists,” she said.

Ibrahim Mahama Announced as the Inaugural Sam Gilliam Award Winner