Maxwell Alexandre, Conny Maier, Zhang Xu Zhan:
Deutsche Bank's “Artists of the Year” at the PalaisPopulaire

For a good decade now, Deutsche Bank has awarded an annual prize to an artist. The condition is that the artist’s work must incorporate the media of paper and photography. The “Artist of the Year” award is intended to provide a platform for new, global positions in contemporary art. The respective work must always be of social and artistic relevance, say something about our time and about society, and present something that has not yet been shown or expressed in this way.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the award, the program is now even more diverse and global. This year, the three curators Victoria Noorthoorn, Hou Hanru, and Udo Kittelmann were not asked for one nomination, as usual, but for three. Each of the jury members chose his or her “Artist of the Year.” The selections were Maxwell Alexandre from Brazil, Conny Maier from Germany, and Zhang Xu Zhan from Taiwan. What all three have in common is that they came to contemporary art via unusual paths and bring with them very diverse life experiences, worldviews, and cultural influences. Now they are showing their works in a large exhibition at the PalaisPopulaire.

Maxwell Alexandre grew up in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, where he still lives today. The artist’s paintings and installations revolve around community and violence, hip-hop and spirituality. Alexandre, who comes from the inline skating scene and was raised in an evangelical home, found in art a new, non-doctrinal way to emancipate himself from racism and social deprivation. With friends, he founded the alternative artists’ church A Noiva. His multi-part series Forbes Under 30 from the cycle 500 Year Party is on view in the exhibition. Alexandre continually painted the cover motif of the 2019 edition of the Brazilian Forbes magazine, which rated him as one of the 90 most successful Brazilians under 30 years of age. The reason: The artist of African descent is the only person of color to be featured alongside three light-skinned people. In Brazil, skin color still determines one’s chances of belonging to a still predominantly white elite. The title of the work refers to the celebration commemorating the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of Brazil by the Portuguese, a history of colonial exploitation by whites. In his painted versions of the cover, Alexandre repeatedly changes the shades of the protagonists' skin colors—a serial meditation on systemic racism, on Brazil’s elite, and on class.

Conny Maier is one of the most important discoveries in current German painting. She is the first German artist to receive the “Artist of the Year” award. Maier’s figurative, brightly colored paintings have various influences: the Expressionism of the Brücke, Picasso, and Gauguin, as well as the current discourses on painting that have emanated from the New Figuration since the 1980s. Maier’s art reflects a world shaped by representation and materialism, in which people seem to lose control. A central motif is the relationship between culture and nature. Maier humorously and prudently exposes the romantic and heroic transfiguration of this struggle for dominance and submission. In the central triptych of her installation in the PalaisPopulaire, which bears the programmatic title Dominate, a kind of power struggle is played out on three huge canvases. The work seems to have been inspired by the Prussian equestrian statues on Bebelplatz and Unter den Linden boulevard in the immediate vicinity of the PalaisPopulaire: A man with a spear tries to conquer an archaic horse, which throws him off or rears up above him. It is not clear who is conquering whom. The wild and at the same time “heroic” nature of the scene is reminiscent of depictions from history painting, of the idealized, heroic, very masculine image of man conquering nature and forming his own world. At the same time, however, her works investigate the grave consequences of the exploitation of people and resources. The current triptych can also be understood as a commentary on the end of the Anthropocene, the age shaped by humankind, conjuring up a future that may exist without human life.

Zhang Xu Zhan was born into a family that has made and traded traditional paper figures for over a century. These objects, which are used in religious ceremonies and funeral rituals in Taiwan, are made of papier-mâché and elaborately decorated. They embody status symbols such as houses, cars, and luxury goods as well as mythological creatures, thus serving a means of communication between people and gods. Zhang Xu draws on this tradition to make surreal stop-motion films staged in immersive installations that lead into the realm of nature spirits and demons. The artist’s new works for the PalaisPopulaire are a continuation of his Animal Story series, in which animals from Asian fables play the main roles. Often, supposedly inferior animals outwit the villains, for example, a deer mouse outsmarts a ravenous crocodile. Underpinned by instruments such as Taiwanese drums and the Indonesian gamelan, they experience voyages of initiation in which they cross torrential waters and literally have to mirror themselves over and over again. Zhang Xu’s films tell of inner and outer transformation in mysterious, archaic images. In doing so, they touch on such universal themes as death, transience, and the striving for community. Zhang Xu, who has a keen interest in spirituality, folklore, and anthropology, transfers his family’s traditional handicrafts into the global art world of the 21st century. This involves the idea of a universal art of the “in-between” state: the domain between cultures, traditions, and new technologies.

Deutsche Bank
"Artists of the Year" 2021

extended until March 14, 2022
PalaisPopulaire, Berlin