For Immediate Release – January 29, 2021

The Arts + Literature Laboratory and UW–Madison Art Department are pleased to announce the 2021 Arts + Literature Laboratory Prize winners University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate Students Rita Mawuena Benissan and Conley Clark!

The annual ALL Prize exhibition is awarded to one or two graduating MFA candidates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, selected by curators on the ALL Visual Arts Team. The prizewinner’s MFA thesis exhibition will be shown at ALL, and receive a $1,000 stipend to assist with exhibition expenses and installation provided by the Art Department.

A local Madison community-driven contemporary non-profit arts organization, the ALL provides the visual, literary, music and performing arts that presents over 200 events per year, mostly free or low-cost, and year-round arts education for all ages, working to make the arts more accessible and sustainable in our community.

MFA Exhibition flyer prototype by Rita Mawuena BenissanMy art and research celebrate African and Black Aesthetic while exploring my cross-cultural background and identity as a Ghanaian and an American woman. I embrace my own aesthetic by reinterpreting the royal umbrella, which symbolises Ghana’s chieftaincy hierarchy.The umbrellas are used to protect and shade the King, Chiefs, and Queen mothers. Market Umbrellas used daily by ordinary Ghanaians hold a similar presence because when you go to the market or on the side of the road, each person under their market umbrellas has a similar hierarchy of power presence as royal individuals within their surroundings.

Photography by Rita Mawuena BenissanI am proposing a show called MO APIAFO. Mo Apiafo is a common phrase used within the chieftaincy. When the Chief acknowledges his people, he might use that phrase or “Piaww!” and referring to “Cudos” or “Power to you”. The show will be a mixture of photographs and umbrellas made in collaboration with traditional craft makers. The photos will document everyday individuals’ narratives, including market women and men, sellers, braiders, fishermen, craftsmen, kids, etc. I hope to push how the royal umbrellas and market umbrellas are being used and seen daily from the structure’s size to its presence. The royal umbrellas are also seen using critical design elements to identify the royal individual and community. By creating textiles for the umbrella that shares a similar identifier for the everyday person, I hope to connect a person’s or a community’s existence and or occupation within their space.

Through looking at my show, I hope my viewers broaden their perspective on how they view an umbrella. Work that is specifically influenced by my Ghanaian background, I hope to bring them into my world and have a chance to experience Ghana from my eyes.

—Rita Mawuena Benissan [MFA ’21]

So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings, self-portrait, wood, cast jesmonite sculpture by Conley ClarkIn practice, I engage conceptually focused approaches to making through sculpture, installations, video, and performance. My work intersects with sexuality, gender, and personal identity. I’m often seeking out alternative ways of self-representation, making symbols of queer identity and connecting my own personal narrative to historical and political moments.My exhibition at Art + Literature Laboratory will explore facets of queerness through digital and sculptural media, with an added focus around the idea of the home. How do we define it? What do we most care about? With whom can we live? How much are we capable of defending it? These questions come on the heels of a pandemic, where the notion of “home” means something different to everyone right now.

The Power of the Stars is Restored multimedia installation, video projection, sound by Conley ClarkMore specifically, I’m interested in the creation of suburbia and other neighborhoods as places that are often at odds with themselves. Representing home to some, the suburbs also carry with it a history of segregation, surveillance, and even violence for marginalized or non-normative folks. As a queer person who just bought a house, I’m interested in excavating the history of home-ownership and the relationships between certain systems of control (i.e., suburbs, redlining, affordable housing) and identifiable bodies. Can the suburbs ever really be queer?

Family movies, projected landscapes, and video of construction sites will represent both the destruction and creation of various “homes.” The use of repurposed domesticated objects, spatial interventions, soft sculpture, and personal drawings will function as world-building techniques inside Art + Literature Laboratory. My exhibition will consist of small “scenes” or constructions of a fictionalized home while also raising awareness to the issues I recounted earlier.

This exhibition provides an opportunity for myself to reflect and contemplate, but it also exists as a vehicle to re-imagine spaces of queer existence while interrogating the history of segregated neighborhoods.

—Conley Clark [MFA ’21]

Benissan and Clark’s 2021 MFA thesis exhibitions will be shown at ALL from March 4 – April 17, 2021, with an artist talk and reception, which may be held virtually.