The International Award for Public Art (IAPA) was established in 2011 by Public Art Review and Public Art magazine (China) to look for the most powerful and effective examples of public art worldwide and to let the media, developers, public officials, and other decision makers know about them. The founders also hoped to spark debate about what constitutes good public art, garnering examples from many cultures and artistic approaches, and underlining the cultural, political, economic, social, and other complexities in which public art is rooted.

Now overseen by the Institute for Public Art, an independent, international network initiated by Shanghai University’s Centre for Public Art, the award has been given every other year since 2011. The winner of the 2019 award, selected by a panel of international judges, is Perception, a neighborhood-scale mural by eL Seed in Cairo, Egypt. It was one of seven commended projects, from seven regions of the world, nominated by a global team of researchers as well as founding partners Public Art Review and Public Art magazine. The award also recognizes 28 shortlisted projects.

Each of these projects represents public work at the highest level, based on concepts—including community engagement, cultural responsiveness, historical memory, innovative forms of collaboration, and environmental concern—that define the field in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Read the full stories for the winner and commended projects at their own individual linked pages.

Region: Africa

Award Winner:

eL Seed, 2016
Perception, eL Seed’s massive Arabic calligraffiti mural in Cairo, is visible as a whole from only one place: a Coptic church in a cave on Mokottam Mountain. The artwork was intended to open a dialogue about the Zaraeeb, a little-known community of Coptic Christians who are master recyclers. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

Human City Project
Michael Uwemedimo, 2018
Nearly half a million residents of Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub, live in self-built informal settlements along the city’s waterfront, lacking basic services and political representation. The Human City Project, headquartered in a “Media Shed,” aims to give waterfront dwellers voices by helping them learn media skills. The shed acts as a community center too, connecting grassroots networks and global campaign platforms, bringing together gang members and government representatives, sanitation engineers and market traders, established artists and aspiring rappers, philanthropic donors and community activists.

White Cube
Renzo Martens, 2017
It’s a hypermodern art space—but it stands on a former palm oil plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s part of Dutch artist Martens’s cooperative venture with the Lusanga International Research Centre on Art and Economic Inequality, in the nearby city of Lusanga, and the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League. International artists exhibit in the cube, along with members of the Art League, whose sculptures in chocolate (cacao is a major Congolese export) sell internationally and produce revenue for the artists. The project is meant to both benefit plantation workers and call attention to the inequities of the international art world, in which places like the DRC are routinely ignored.

Mehdi Ben Cheikh, 2014—
Paris-based gallerist Ben Cheikh invited prominent street artists from 30 countries to the village of Erriadh on the Tunisian island of Djerba, and by creating 250 artworks on village walls, they have turned Erriadh into one of the premier street-art showcases in the world. It’s a way to both celebrate Tunisia as the launching ground of the Arab Spring in 2010, and increase Erriadh’s profile in order to boost economically crucial tourism, which declined during subsequent social unrest in the country.

I Am Because We Are
Ricky Lee Gordon, 2013
South African street artist Gordon’s 130-foot-tall image of Nelson Mandela in a boxing stance adorns a building in the Maboneng district near Johannesburg and stands for the interest the first Black president of the country took in boxing, not for its violence, but for its egalitarian quality—“In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant,” he once said—and the strategic science needed to win. The artist hopes that the image, whose title translates Mandela’s key social concept, Ubuntu, will inspire residents of the hardscrabble neighborhood, which is undergoing renewal.

Region: Oceania

Commended Project:

barrangal dyara (skin and bones)
Jonathan Jones, 2016

In Sydney, Australia’s Garden Palace, Jonathan Jones’s installation barrangal dyara called attention to lost Aboriginal history with 15,000 white replicas of Aboriginal shields, a meadow of native kangaroo grass in the center, and a soundscape of youth speaking eight Aboriginal languages. Read the full story.

Shorlisted Projects:

A Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step—The Story of Beyond Refuge
Tiffany Singh, in partnership with the Auckland Resettled Community Coalition (ARCC), 2017
On the island of Waiheke, near Auckland, social-practice artist Singh turned four formerly derelict small boats, upended and decorated with colorful saris and blankets, into sounding chambers for the recorded stories of migrants to New Zealand. As visitors rested in their shade, they learned about the horrors and triumphs of the global migrant journey.

The Lighthouse: Tū Whenua-a-Kura
Michael Parekowhai, 2017
Parekowhai created a near-exact replica of a New Zealand “state house,” typically built as part of a public housing development. But he added elements that comment in complex ways on the Māori and European heritages of the islands—including neon re-creations of Southern Hemisphere constellations inside that reflect off a glossy statue of explorer/colonizer Captain James Cook, depicted in a moment of pensiveness or regret. And he placed the house on a wharf in Auckland harbor, where it acts as a symbolic lighthouse, indicating a “safe harbor” for today’s migrants.

I Eat You Eat Me
Mella Jaarsma, 2012
This interactive performance, which has traveled to many sites around the world, including Indonesia, begins when two people are invited to sit close to each other and don leather bibs attached to a mobile tabletop. They then choose food for each other, and feed each other, gaining an opportunity to, in the artist’s words, “get into the skin” of one another—at least symbolically.

Transi(en)t Manila
Fourteen artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and the U.S., 2012
The artists spent a two-week residency in the struggling Escolta neighborhood in Manila, creating site-specific artworks at various locations—works that were sophisticated, earthy, colorful, and enjoyable at many levels. The result was a celebration of the local by artists both native to the place and born farther away—an effort to avoid both the parochialism of pure localism and the gloss, placelessness, and gentrification-threat of globalism.

Region: East and Southeast Asia

Commended Project:

Wind Telephone
Itaru Sasaki, 2011
In 2010, Japanese garden designer Itaru Sasaki—who lives outside the coastal city of Ōtsuchi—built a telephone booth in his garden. It contained an unconnected rotary phone on which he could talk with his late, beloved cousin. After the 2011 tsunami hit Ōtsuchi and a tenth of its population was killed, the Wind Telephone became a place of solace for thousands of visitors. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

The Microclimatic Life-Line
Annechien Meier and Gert-Jan Gerlach, Laboratory for Microclimates, 2017
The eleven connected rafts that make up this installation were crafted by the artists under the guidance of traditional bamboo workers in Taiwan, and installed in the Chen Long Wetlands, which were created when a massive typhoon struck Taiwan’s west coast in 1987. Made of local, natural, biodegradable, and recycled materials, the Life-Line suggests the line traced by a heartbeat monitor, and stands for the changes in consumption habits necessary if we’re to meet the global challenges of climate change.

Plants Living in Shanghai
Zheng Bo, assisted by curator Liu Xiao, 2013
The long-abandoned Shanghai Cement Factory, overgrown with wild plants, became a focus of research as Zheng and Liu preserved, studied, and lectured about this “found botanical garden.” They probed the histories, visual representation, and significance of the plants in China’s modernization and their relationship with the growth and transformation of Shanghai. Zheng also worked with local scholars specializing in ecology, literature, Chinese medicine, and architecture to develop an eight-week online course on the past and present of Shanghai as seen through plants.

Traveling Around Taipei with Garbage Trucks
Prototype Paradise, 2015
Prototype Paradise, a Taiwan-based performance group committed to unconventional venues and the reinvention of theater as a place for informal encounters, teamed up with sanitation workers in Taiwan’s capital to convert garbage trucks into colorful carnival floats, transform trash into dolls and puppets, and perform street theater along garbage routes. And in the “BusStory” segment, people were invited on board a bus where, in exchange for their presenting a single piece of trash that “represents Taipei,” they got a trash collector’s view of the city and heard stories of sanitation workers’ lives told by a tour guide.

Sora-Ami: Knitting the Sky—Shimameguri
Yasuaki Igarashi, 2016
This is the 2016 version of a work that Igarashi has created in multiple locations in Japan, and once in New Zealand. In collaboration with residents of five islands in Japan’s Inland Sea whose ways of life have been altered by modern development, the artist wove multicolored fishing nets—one color for each of the five islands—and then displayed them on a beach site, where they acted as colorful scrim through which to observe and contemplate the complex relationships between the sea and the land, traditional livelihoods and the modern landscape.

Region: North America

Commended Project:

Hotel Empire: The New York Crossing
Laurent Boijeot and Sébastien Renauld, 2015
Laurent Boijeot and Sébastien Renauld spent a month traveling along the length of Manhattan with portable furniture for Hotel Empire: The New York Crossing. They moved five blocks per day, creating public seating during the day and beds for themselves, and those in need, at night. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

One Million Bones
Naomi Natale, 2008–2013
To call attention to genocidal violence in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Burma, and elsewhere, Natale worked with artists around the world to craft one million replicas of human bones. Then, in 2013, the bones were arranged in a dense pattern along the entire length of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—an overwhelming, nearly inescapable icon of inhumanity, and a call to action.

Soul Food Pavilion
Theaster Gates, 2012
By situating five “ritual dinners” of soul food in a struggling majority-Black Chicago neighborhood, and inviting artists, activists, art patrons, musicians, poets, and the public to feast together, Gates commemorated the role of food in holding the African-American community together and sparked conversations about race, privilege, and what nourishes communities. “The dinners,” he said, “[gave] me a way to leverage ritual, to ask hard questions in ways that people don’t normally talk about in Chicago, with groups of people who don’t normally get together.”

Storefront Theatre
Matthew Mazzotta, 2016
When Mazzotta came to Lyons, Nebraska, set up carpeting and furniture on the town’s main street, and invited townspeople to join him in “outdoor living room” discussions about what the 850-person town needed, many told him they wanted to see its failing downtown revive. He heard about a storefront that was only a façade—it had no building behind it—and he used hydraulics to turn that façade into a theater: the storefront pivots downward and transforms into a bank of seats. Films and concerts have been held in this unique outdoor venue, and Lyons now has a downtown attraction that’s been drawing audiences from all over.

Rolling Rez Arts
Bryan Parker, 2015–
A big truck adorned with stylized buffalo in bright colors crisscrosses the Connecticut-size Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, connecting Native artists with one another while helping them ratchet up their artistic and financial skills. The vehicle can be configured as a classroom, an exhibition space, or a computer lab, for art business building and for financial literacy classes. It also brings buyers to artists’ homes on the reservation.

Region: West, Central, and South Asia

Commended Project:

Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema
The Tentative Collective, 2011–2015
The projector used for Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri and the Tentative Collective’s Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema travels throughout Karachi on a rickshaw. It’s used to show mobile-phone video documentaries made by people in Karachi on open-air walls throughout the city. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

St+Art India
Hanif Kureshi, Giulia Ambrogi, Akshat Nauriyal, Arjun Bahl, and Thanish Thomas, 2014 (ongoing)
This project encompasses seven Indian cities, with the goal of creating safe spaces and brighter environments through street art. Representing a first-of-its-kind engagement between street artists and local governments, the project includes murals, postering, rice-pasting, yarn-bombing and more, and works range in size from “blink-and-you-miss-it” to the largest murals in India. In many cases residents have had a say in the style and content of the works, and many works carry messages supporting the rights of women, LGBTQ people, the poor, and prisoners.

Pawel Althamer and The Neighbours, 2017
In the Samdani Sculpture Park in Sylhet, Bangladesh, Polish artist Althamer teamed up with local people—including children and residents of a nearby drug rehab—to create this gigantic reclining female figure, made of a bamboo frame covered with cloth. Named by the residents for a prominent Bengali educator and advocate of women’s rights, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932), the sculpture is a “big tent” housing a kiln and a space for workshops, exhibitions, and other community activities.

Chitpur Local
Hamdasti, 2014–2018
The Kolkata-based arts group Hamdasti’s four-year project focused on the city’s diverse Chitpur Road neighborhood, at one end of which stands the stately family compound of celebrated Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, while the other end is a low-income community. The artists engaged local people to revive the district’s fading traditions, which include printmaking, publishing, jewelry making, the jatra folk theater, traditional addas or public conversations, and much more.

Walled Off Hotel Apology Tea Party
Banksy, 2017
The elusive British artist, a proponent of the Palestinian cause, set up this parody tea party, complete with tattered Union Jacks and party hats riddled with “bullet holes,” outside his Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (The Hotel, which is located next to a section of a concrete wall erected by Israeli security authorities, began as a temporary installation but has turned into a functioning hotel-cum-art-gallery.) The point of the party was to apologize for the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which threw British support behind the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine—without consulting the Palestinians.

Region: Eurasia

Commended Project:

Biodiversity Tower
Angelo Vermeulen, 2015
Biodiversity Tower in Willebroek, Belgium, is filled with life. Demonstrating biological processes, it has a wind turbine, water pump, drip irrigation system, plants, and an “insect hotel.” Located near a former Nazi concentration camp, its focus on diversity stands in contrast to resurgent xenophobia. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

Tomorrow, Today
Somewhere (Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie), 2014
The artists, as part of a residency in the Archaeology Department of Cambridge University, created a unique landscape intervention near one of the university’s archaeological digs in a still-rural northwestern area of the city: a scale-model reproduction of the city’s plan for redevelopment of the area. Planned streets, houses, and other buildings were modeled in cob, a traditional building material made mostly of excavated earth, creating a haunting site that feels ancient and modern at once.

Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope
Suzanne Lacy, 2016
The small English town of Brierfield, Lancashire, once produced 85 percent of the world’s cotton goods. After World War II, Pakistani immigrants joined the native-born workers, but the subsequent decline of the weaving industry meant that Whites and Asians no longer worked together, and their communities grew apart. Lacy’s project brought them together in a series of monthly discussions and singing sessions, in which traditional English shape note singing—a Lancashire specialty—was blended with the mystical Islamic (Sufi) singing that Pakistanis love.

Champ Harmonique (Harmonic Field)
Pierre Sauvageot, 2011
Percussion instruments, sirens, bells, glockenspiels (some tuned to Middle Eastern and East Asian scales), resonating tubes, cellos, bamboo organs, and other musical devices—all activated by the wind. The colorful and resonant ensemble, created by artist and free-jazz veteran Sauvageot, traveled to open spaces throughout Europe, from the South of France to Austria, and from the Netherlands to the UK. The duration of the musical performance was unpredictable, depending on the intensity and direction of the wind.

Free Speech Memorial
Katarzyna Brońska, Mikołaj Iwańczuk, Michał Kempiński, 2014
Vital in the defeat of Communism in Poland was the country’s flourishing dissident press, which produced some 3,000 magazines and 7,000 books, despite repression. Warsaw’s Free Speech Memorial, created by veterans of that movement in cooperation with the post-Communist government, is a long black strip of metal and concrete meant to imitate a censor’s blacking-out of a line of text. It curves upward and ends in front of the building that once housed the official censorship office. At that point stands a transparent panel with a quote from the Roman historian Tacitus: “It is a rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.”

Region: Latin America

Commended Project:

Sumando Ausencias
Doris Salcedo, 2016
Mourners and protesters sewed together 2,300 sheets with the names of people killed or disappeared during Colombia’s civil war, for Doris Salcedo’s Sumando Ausencias. The gigantic shroud, which covered Bogotá, Colombia’s Plaza Bolívar, was completed on October 11, 2016. Read the full story.

Shortlisted Projects:

Eduardo Srur, 2014
Srur’s life-size, hyper-realistic figures on blue diving boards appear to be ready to become ill by plunging into the maximally polluted Pinheiros River, which runs through Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. The project, carried out in cooperation with the nonprofit Aguas Claras do Rio Pinheiro (Clear Waters of the Pinheiro River), accompanied an art exhibit on the theme of Brazil’s water-pollution crisis, which includes dam collapses, contamination of rivers by heavy metals, and government inaction.

Collective White House
Donald Russell, 2011
Russell, director of the University of Illinois’s art-and-activism-oriented Provisions Learning Project, worked with local people to erect a 1/5-scale model of the White House in the Plaza Botero in Medellín, Colombia. Made of used sheets from a budget motel in the city, the ephemeral structure was the center of a public event featuring music, street theater, and video, in which the public was invited to discuss the often-oppressive role of the U.S. in the world and the rich symbolism of a White House created by Latin American workers.

Parque para Bricar e Pensar (Park for Jumping and Thinking)
Grupo Contrafilé, 2011
On a plot of land in a low-income São Paulo neighborhood on which houses had been torn down, the Contrafilé arts group co-created a playground/park for local children. Contrafilé, local residents, and a gallery of artists and organizations joined together to discuss what was wanted and how it could be created with a minimum of cost and a maximum of imagination. The result was a colorful, mind-expanding playland made up of cast-off materials.

Floating Attention
Ala Plástica, La Dársena, El Levante and Taller Flotante, 2013–
The basin of the River Plate takes in parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, flowing through urban areas that are home to more than 20 million people, as well as vast rural areas. This huge project of nomadic actions, carried in by four art-activist organizations, tackles diverse, complex social and environmental issues all along the Plate basin through dialogue, research, and art practice, and then publishes the results in multiple forms.

Text by Jon Spayde, based on reports by researchers for the International Award for Public Art.

Public Art Review issue 59Featured in Public Art Review #59.