The Theodora Niemeijer Prize is the largest art prize given to female artists based in the Netherlands. On March 8, Sarah Sejin Chang (Sarah van der Heide) was named the winner of this year’s prize.
Contemporary art is often considered difficult to understand for the viewers, but it is also equally challenging for the artists to create, as contemporary artworks should contain a visual language that reflects our ever-changing world while incorporating the artist’s own unique perspective. In this regard, it could be said that a leading artist in the contemporary art world is one whose works reflect both individuality and universality, embodying something we overlook in our daily lives within a larger and new contextual framework.
In a sense, Sarah Sejin Chang (Sarah van der Heide), who was selected as the recipient of the Theodora Niemeijer Prize in the Netherlands, is one of these artists.
Born in Busan in 1977 and adopted to the Netherlands, Chang expands her experience as an adoptee into a larger context and unravels the contemporary situation surrounding the transnational adoption industry in her works.
The Korean-born artist, who has been building her artistic career since the 1990s, was first introduced to the Korean art world in 2022, presenting her works at a two-person show at the ARCO Art Center and participating in the 2022 Busan Biennale.
The artist covers various genres, including video, text, sound, installation, performance, and painting. Using historical research, she challenges Eurocentrism and racialization in a poetic yet intimate way through decolonization, healing, and shamanism. The artist goes beyond personal experiences and questions underlying thoughts, such as discrimination and racial issues, that permeate today’s society.
Four Months, Four Million Light Years (2020), Chang’s recent film installation that was also exhibited at the 2022 Busan Biennale, received special attention during the screening process. “Four months” in the title refers to a law in Korea that requires a child to spend at least four months in an orphanage prior to adoption.
The work comprehensively deals with the trauma that the world has been experiencing due to child abduction, child trafficking, and the interracial adoption industry. Beyond the story of Korean history, this work depicts the shamanic healing process that transcends time and space in the colonial narrative behind the large-scale multinational adoption industry.
The “Arirang,” an unofficial national anthem of Korea, and Korean shamanic elements are featured in the artwork. According to an interview with the Busan Ilbo, Sara Sejin Chang stated, “I think Korean shamanism culture, in general, contains a rich cosmology,” and added that she wanted to include shamanistic research in her work.
One of the juries, Zippora Elders, Chief Curator and Head of Curatorial Department & Outreach voor Gropius Bau in Berlin, noted that “Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) questions Eurocentric thinking and mixes intimate stories and wider geopolitical concerns with ample visual eloquence across multiple disciplines.”
Four Months, Four Million Light Years is on view at ROZENSTRAAT – a rose is a rose is a rose in Amsterdam until April 9, 2023. The artwork has also been acquired by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for the museum’s permanent collection and will be on view through August 27, 2023.
Sara Sejin Chang was chosen as the final winner from the nominees selected by the Stedelijk Museum, Centraal Museum Utrecht, Kunstinstituut Melly, and Museum Arnhem.
Along with Andrea Davina, Director of the Niemeijer Fund Foundation, the jury includes Aveline de Bruin from the Quetzal Art Center, artist Ansuya Blom, Zippora Elders, Head of Curatorial Department & Outreach voor Gropius Bau, and Charles Esche, Director of the Van Abbemuseum.
Run by the Niemeijer Fund Foundation, the Theodora Niemeijer Prize is the largest art award held every two years and given to prominent female artists based in the Netherlands. This year, the prize shifted from selecting emerging young women artists to supporting women artists who are at a crucial midway point in their careers.
The foundation renewed the award to shed light on the issue of inequality between male and female artists within museum collections. The prize was restructured to promote gender equality, thus increasing the amount of the prize tenfold this year.
Of the 100,000 euros, a quarter of the amount will be used as a museum acquisition budget for Chang’s artworks, and the rest will be available to the artist without restrictions.
Andrea Davina, Director of the Niemeijer Fund Foundation, stated, “With a more substantial prize amount, we give financial support to both the artist and a museum. We expect this to be a step in the right direction to keep the unequal division between men and women on the agenda.”
The Niemeijer Fonds was established in 1996 by Theodora Niemeijer, the daughter of a famous cigarette manufacturer in Groningen, to promote the works and practices of emerging artists in fields ranging from music to the visual arts. The Theodora Niemeijer Prize was established in 2012, together with the Van Abbemuseum, to shed light on female artists living and working in the Netherlands.