Voices raised in praise unite listeners

South African artist inspired by living through apartheid


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Five years after apartheid ended in his home country of South Africa, artist James Webb was inspired to create Prayer, an ongoing sound installation on display as Prayer (Chicago) at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/01/2020 (1167 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Five years after apartheid ended in his home country of South Africa, artist James Webb was inspired to create Prayer, an ongoing sound installation on display as Prayer (Chicago) at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Prayer was strongly inspired by both my academic studies in comparative religion in the mid-’90s and the experience of growing up during apartheid South Africa and the post-1994 elections,” Webb says.

Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for separateness, was a system of racial segregation implemented in 1948 in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) that lasted until the early 1990s. After it ended, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created, the results of which also inspired Webb in his work.

The installation consists of recordings of prayers by individuals from dozens of faith and spiritual affinities. At the exhibit, visitors are invited to remove their footwear and walk the length of the red carpet while listening to the chorus of voices.

“I wanted to create an experience that could attempt to avoid visual prejudice long enough for an audience member to listen to the concerns of someone else,” says Webb, 44.

The Voyager Golden Record — a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record of media housed on the Voyager 1 spacecraft, created with the intention of communicating the Earth’s story to extraterrestrial life — served as an additional source of inspiration, as did Webb’s academic training in drama.

“During my university studies I read for a degree in drama and was influenced by the work of Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed,” he says, referencing the form of theatre founded by the Brazilian playwright in which the audience plays an active role in politically engaged, interactive work.

Webb works on large-scale installations within traditional spaces such as museums and galleries, as well as in non-traditional public spaces that afford the possibility the theatricality.

With Prayer (Chicago), the 10th incarnation of Prayer and the first in North America, Webb combines the best of both environments.

The internationally renowned, multi-channel sound installation debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago in fall 2018, but has existed in prior incarnations.

Prayer started off in 2000 with a few dozen recordings from individuals and groups in Cape Town,” says Webb. “This recent version features over 200 participants. It’s unfolding and deepening, and with every iteration of the project a bigger network is created.”

By deliberately gathering prayers from a variety of religions and spiritualities, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Paganism, he hopes to unite people under a common theme.

“For me, spirituality and religion are one of the ways we can think about our place in the unknown,” he says. “I also think it’s one of the many ways that we can think about our politics and the ways we inhabit and share the world.

“Art is another way that we do this, but there are many ways.”

Frances.Koncan@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @franceskoncan

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Frances Koncan

Frances Koncan
Arts reporter

Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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