Harmony and Togetherness: The Winners of ArtPrize

The first thing you may notice when visiting Abdoulaye Conde’s “Raining Wisdom” mural at 45 Ottawa NW, besides its impressive size, is its intriguing use of bold, black lines to separate colors and create an unfolding mosaic pattern. In this way, it’s almost like stained glass—presenting colors in an enticing way that invites the viewer to see the piece from both up close and afar. Conde intended on this very effect.

“If you look at the style, you can see more beautiful colors together in harmony,” Conde said. “It makes me and other people very happy.”

Conde has loved art since he was very young, drawing with only pencil at first. Then, when he was 15 and could afford the materials, he began to paint. Each day he continued like this, sketching original pieces and teaching himself the basics. Eventually, a family friend (who happened to be an artist herself) was able to see his work, and Conde’s raw talent came into clear view. She gave him a simple instruction: Find your style. Anyone should be able to see one of Conde’s pieces and immediately know who created it. Conde got to work.

“In 2012, I started to draw on vinyl,” Conde said. “I thought, ‘If I put a head inside of it, the round black vinyl can be the hair.’ I did that for three years.”

The logo for his website and online store, Boutique Gnabassan, is in this very medium. The image depicts a Black woman’s portrait overlayed with Conde’s iconic mosaic patterning, all painted on an old vinyl record. Curious if this artistic effect was somehow tied to his unique brand name, I asked Conde for a definition.

“Gnabassan means ‘mixed,’ mixed in harmony and togetherness,” Conde said. “If we are together, then nothing can break us. That’s gnabassan.”

Abdoulaye Conde was not the only audience favorite that made waves during this year’s ArtPrize—Rebecca Humes’ “Tale of Ten Dresses” is another. Humes has evolved her presentation each and every year, beginning with her primary medium of photography. This year’s piece was finally the showstopper she’d been aiming for, exhibiting modeled photos of 10 original dresses crafted from old children’s books, as well as the dresses themselves on display. In the process, friends and family volunteered to help cut paper as Humes glued the materials together in order to construct each new outfit. This was after an unfortunate accident nearly put her project on hold.

“One of the biggest roadblocks that I hit was midway through this process I fell and broke my wrist,” Humes said. “So, I did have a small village come together and help me pull this off.”

The result is an incredible feat that needs to be seen to be believed. Gazing deeper into any of these dresses reveals a mammoth-sized collage of old, worn book pages and illustrations. Humes’ dress dedicated to Beverly Cleary required 83 books alone.

“If a thrift store or bookstore can’t sell them, most of the time they just end up in the trash,” Humes said. “I’m trying to give these books a second chance at life and bring their magic back to life as a piece of art.”

For Conde, the journey toward ArtPrize 2023 was less tried and true. Some of his family live in Grand Rapids, and so they encouraged him to submit a pitch. He figured he’d try it out, and early sketches of what eventually became “Raining Wisdom” were primarily centered around his own life story, growing up in Guinea, West Africa, where elephants (or syli) are so widely beloved. When he first started as an artist, elephants were some of his first subjects. So, it seemed right to depict them on a much grander scale.

“My favorite times were going to the beach and swimming all day,” Conde said. “When I look at the piece, it reminds me of my story.”

Even on occasions when he and his sister were meant to go to the water and perform chores, like washing their clothes, young Conde couldn’t resist jumping into the water and playing. The girl and boy in “Raining Wisdom” are meant to represent childhood memories like these, showing siblings enjoying the idyllic landscape around them. Conde’s own father, who died when he was 10 years old, is depicted in the mural. In fact, the piece’s very title comes from a motto his father had repeated to him since a young age. In this way, “Raining Wisdom” is a living memorial, now to be immortalized as a part of our city. Perhaps Conde’s vision of a memory can offer some amazement and wonder to our own home here in West Michigan. And for our future.

“ArtPrize is a good opportunity for all the artists in the world to share their beautiful ideas,” Conde said. “I’m so appreciative for ArtPrize here.”