When the Sovereign Art Prize was initiated in 2003 it aimed both for prestige and accessibility.

Over the years, they’ve managed to achieve a good measure of both, with two prizes – one decided by jury, the other by the public. Nominees are picked by a varied group of nominators, from established regional artists and educators, to former gallery owners and curators, and drawn from countries covering all of the Asia-Pacific, from China to Pakistan, and down to Australia.

The 13th edition of the prize has been handed to Chinese artist Li Hongbo for his 2014 metal sculpture Desire. The work consists of a chopping knife, except its blade is made of folded metal into which has been carved running silhouettes, not unlike a metallic garland. One unfolding piece lifts out of the knife, as though those silhouettes were running away from it, in spirit.

Li is more usually known for his work with honeycomb paper. He creates what at first sight look like classical Western sculpture busts made out of stone, but under closer inspection can be elongated and twisted, by pulling their heads out into paper tubes as they are effectively made of thousands of layers of thin honeycomb paper.

For Desire, he applied the idea of folding and unfolding, and sculpting the human form, common to his paper art, but this time using solid material. Not as surprising as his paper busts, the work however plays on twisting perceptions and diverting an initial stance, all the while showing high level of skill — a mix of which must have charmed the jurors (Alexandra A Seno, head of development at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong; Berlin-based curator David Elliott; Indonesian critic and sculptor Jim Supangkat, and former director and CEO of the National Art School in Sydney, Michael Snelling).

The artist received US$30,000 for his efforts and the former book editor immediately decided what to do with it. “I would like to donate 50% of the prize money back to The Sovereign Art Foundation, to help and support their programs for underprivileged children across Asia; and 50% to the Jilin Normal University [where he is from and where he studied] for the teachers training program, so they can continue to spread their love and knowledge to the next generation,” he said.

Yogie Achmad's Ginanjr Absorption, oil on canvas, 100 x 150 x 40cm. Photo courtesy of The Sovereign Art Foundation
Yogie Achmad’s Ginanjr Absorption, oil on canvas, 100 x 150 x 40cm. Photo courtesy of The Sovereign Art Foundation

Li had been nominated by Hong Kong-born artist Gary Mok Wai-hong, another former prize-finalist, and was chosen from a final field of 30.

The public prize of US$1,000 went to the work of Yogie Achmad Ginanjar, an Indonesian realist painter whose Absorption 7, an oil on canvas from 2016, shows the back of a mohawk-headed punk rocker sporting a black leather jacket emblazoned with the word Exploited – together with the iconic skull design of the eponymous Edinburgh punk bank. The viewer views the viewer looking at a traditionally intricately decorated prayerniche, or Mihrab.

Interestingly, Li also has a series called Absorption, made up of his famous paper sculptures and featuring variations of a child with stacks of books — absorbing knowledge, one can assume — although in Ginanjar’s photorealist painting it seems the designation refers to religious contemplation. Here’s to a prize that point towards a consensus between God and science.