From left, artists Dave McKenzie, Mickalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, and Theaster Gates.


DAVE MCKENZIE, MICKALENE THOMAS, JULIE MEHRETU, Njideka Akunyili and Theaster Gates are in good company. The artists are among 13 nominated for the biennial James Dicke Contemporary Art Prize. The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced the nominees on Aug. 14.

Established by the museum in 2001 to recognize a visionary artist younger than 50 who has produced a significant body of work, Kara Walker is a previous recipient of the honor (2004). There is no application for the award which includes a $25,000 prize. Artists are nominated by a member of a five-person jury of experts in the field of contemporary art. The jurors remain anonymous until they reveal the winner, who will be announced in November.

The videos below shed light on the practices of the five artists. Gates explains his approach at Tedx UNC; McKenzie performs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, while Akunyili explains her work while in residence at the museum; and Mehretu and Thomas discuss their inspirations and aesthetics.



THEASTER GATES approaches his work—installations, performances and mixed-media creations—through a social and political lens. An artist with two urban planning degrees, he transforms abandoned buildings into cultural spaces in Omaha, St. Louis and Chicago, where he lives and works. In his neglected South Side neighborhood, he’s converted underused buildings into an Archive House for art and architecture books from a defunct store and a Listening Room full of vinyl records from another shuttered local business. He has since moved onto larger, multi-million projects, creating affordable housing, cafes, the restoration of a major bank building, and successfully pushing through his vision for an Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago. In a TEDx Talk at the University of North Carolina (Feb. 9, 2013), Gates envisions how artists can change the world, one community at a time. | Video by Tedx Talks, 2013.



DAVE MCKENZIE is curious about the world, pop culture and his sense of self. A conceptual artist who works in performance, photography and video, he participated in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and was also featured in the 2013 group show “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art.” As a part of the programming for “Radical Presence” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, McKenzie performed “Darker than the Moon, Smaller than the Sun,” a reflection on his longstanding relationship with the museum. (In the video, his performance begins at 2:05 and he appears at 11:22.) Jamaican-born McKenzie lives and works in Brooklyn. | Video by Studio Museum in Harlem, February 2014



NJIDEKA AKUNYILI‘s work is defined by detailed patterns and rich colors using collage techniques. She describes her vibrant, layered paintings as capturing moments in the everyday. Born in Nigeria, Akunyili was educated at Swarthmore College, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Yale, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts. A recent artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum (2011-12), her work was featured earlier this year in “Sound Vision: Contemporary Art From the Collection” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. | Video by Studio Museum in Harlem, Nov. 15, 2012


Julie Mehretu: The in-between place. | Video by Louisiana Channel, 2013


JULIE MEHRETU paints large abstract works, layered canvases marked with pencil and ink that reference architecture, place and politics. “The reason that I work within abstraction or within the language of abstract painting is that it’s this place where there isn’t a clear image of perspective. It is much more about that in-between place,” Mehretu says. Her works are among the most expensive by a living female artist. Born in Ethiopia, Mehretu lives and works in New York. | Video by Louisiana Channel of Denmark, 2013.



MICKALENE THOMAS‘s work celebrates the power and beauty of the female body through iconic images, mixed-media, sequin-embellised collage paintings that have a Cubist aesthetic. During a studio visit, she explains in the video that “taking on these women as these very glamourous assured, sexy subjects, I think it all goes back to my mother. Her charisma. I really started thinking about women like her and I wanted to celebrate black femininity and that sexuality in a different way by claiming the space that seemed to be voided for a while.” Brooklyn-based Thomas recently exhibited a new body of work “Tete de Femme” at Lehman Maupin Gallery in New York. | Video by White Film for Artspace, February 2014. CT


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