19/11/2014 12:38 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Griffin Art Prize 2014

In the early years of the 20th century, elaborate exhibitions at White City in west London were staged to celebrate the British empire. Model colonial villages were constructed, Bollywood-style spectaculars were put on, one featuring a herd of elephants.

"Natives" from the colonies were imported for the events, the over-riding theme being that the Empire's crowning glory had been to civilise them. Millions flocked to see the shows.

Chudamani Clowes was fascinated by these events and studied them in the ethnographic archive at the British Museum. She was born in Sri Lanka and moved to London as a child. Now 48, she has worked as a teacher and this year she gained an MA in Fine Art at the Royal Academy of Art.

On Tuesday evening, she was declared winner of the Griffin Art Prize 2014 at the Griffin Gallery in London, a stone's throw away from the old White City site.


In "Elephant head with a bonnet" (above) Clowes has combined her fascination with post-colonial identity with her interest in Victorian bonnets.

"I started looking at bonnets because Victorians used to measure craniums, the brain, and it was very important because the size of your brain mattered, as a measure of intelligence."

Clowes has shaped the bonnets on the black mannequin to resemble the head of an elephant in a symbolic and eccentric way. She first drew, and then printed on to muslin, skin patterns much used by Victorian lace and bonnet makers. She often wears her bonnets in the locality as a form of performance art.

She has also exhibits a painting and a sculpture on a similar theme of colonisation, global imperialism and the impact of the British Empire on immigration and migration issues.

"I think she's covering very important ground in a very sensitive way," says celebrated artist Anj Smith, one of the judging panel. "The way she's delving into that merging of history and cultures - we need to see more of that, and she deals with that with great intelligence."


The prize is awarded to emerging artists in painting and drawing. Chudamani Clowes, (above after the announcement), emerged triumphant from a long list of 20 that was then boiled down to 10. The works of all those shortlisted are being exhibited at the gallery for a month.

As winner, she gets to work in a new studio space with state of the art materials that will enable her to produce works for a solo exhibition at the gallery next year.

"For the year, I'm going to liaise with the locals - I went to school around here, at Holland Park. To coincide with the Carnival at the end of August, I'm going to map out the route and really get in there and come out with some new paintings."

This local attachment may have contributed to her success since the Griffin Gallery is very much integrated with the local west London community, and added factors may have tipped the balance in what was, apparently, a close contest.


As director of the Griffin Gallery, Becca Pelly-Fry (above) had no vote but exercised a role as mediator. She explained to me the aspects the judges were looking for.

"Quality of the work primarily, commitment of the artist to their background, and their CV, their ability to talk about and describe their work, and what use they would make of their residency if they won. So, how much would they benefit, how much would we benefit by their being here?"

Interestingly, all but one of the 10 featured artists at the exhibition are women - mere coincidence according to the judges. They also hail from a wide diversity of backgrounds. In addition to Chudamani Clowes's Sri Lankan roots, Matthew Krishnau is from Bangladesh, Alexandra Sinopoulou from Greece, Yvonne Feng and Jinge Zhao from China, and Evy Jokhova from Switzerland. All, including Sarah Lederman, Amba Sayal-Bennett, Elisha Enfield and Jennifer Campbell now live and work in the UK.

The Griffin Art Prize exhibition is at the Griffin Gallery, 21 Evesham Street, London W11 4AJ until 19 December.

All images are used with the gallery's permission.