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Bridget Riley wins the Sikkens Prize for her work in colour

Dutch prize recognizes the monochrome painter’s more colourful achievements.

Bridget Riley, one of Britain’s most acclaimed modern painters, was this week awarded the 2012 Sikkens Prize, an award recognizing special contributions to the Sikkens Foundation’s aim “of stimulating those cultural and scientific developments in society in which color plays a specific role.”  

The gesture is a delightfull surprise, as most will know Riley best for her iconic experimentations in monochromatic hues. Riley’s black and white paintings of the early Sixties were meticulous, dizzying geometric canvases that often played optical tricks on the viewer. Following a breakthrough exhibition, The Responsive Eye at New York City’s MOMA in 1965, her trompe l’oeil creations were dubbed Op-Art – a riff on the concurrent Pop-Art movement – and propelled Riley to international fame.

Riley’s introduction of colour to her work in 1967 was said to have been “cautious” – its inherent subjectivity clashed with the stability of black and white. However, her work as a colourist soon flourished. Since the 1970s she has retained the abstract forms of her early work while incorporating bold, lavish hues. Highlights in her career include mural paintings for the Royal Liverpool Hospital, set designs for the ballet “Colour Moves”, and a retrospective at the Royal Academy last May.

Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Theo van Doesburg, Donald Judd and architect Gerrit Rietveld, who was the first to take the award in 1960. The Foundation enthusiastically endorses an expansive definition of visual art and “sees color, which is after all a universal phenomenon, in a very broad context.” Hence, recipients of the award have also included – rather wonderfully - “Hippies” in 1970 “for the exuberant use of color as a playful aspect in human society, making a real contribution to the integration of color and space”, and "the cleaning department of the city of Paris" in 1995 “for the consistent use of the color green in materials and clothing, which led to an awareness of the problems of waste and the environment in the population of Paris, and to an identity with more dignity for the people working in the department.”

Riley is the first women to claim the award.

In an official statement from Sikkens, 81 year-old Riley earned the prize …

For the way in which she has enriched her work with colour. The purity, subtlety and precision of her use of colour have led to a sensational oeuvre from which a new generation of artists is drawing inspiration.

In addition, the Gemeente Museum in The Hague will host an exhibition of her work to mark the occasion. On the use of colour in her own work, Riley wrote this in The Pleasure of Sight (1984):

Colour is the proper means for what I want to do because it is prone to inflections and inductions existing only through relationship; malleable, yet tough and resilient.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis