*** DEBUG END ***

Chaiya Art Awards: ‘God is . . .’ at Gallery@OXO

14 May 2021

Jonathan Evens writes about the exhibition for the Chaiya Awards

© Fred Judd Photography

Reflection, by Fred Judd Photography

Reflection, by Fred Judd Photography

ART competitions matter. While those who have been showered with acclaim can afford to be blasé about their value — David Hockney, for example, once joked that “You wouldn’t call Picasso an award-winning artist, would you?” — awards do support and further the careers of winning artists.

The first Chaiya Art Award went to Deborah Tompsett, who subsequently said: “It was such a boost to my confidence to win . . . and that has fed into a strong focus to work hard, take risks, think bigger and use the confidence boost to keep growing and developing as an artist.” With that kind of endorsement, it was perhaps no surprise that there was a 55-per-cent increase in entries for the Chaiya Art Awards 2020. Then the pandemic intervened, and the exhibition scheduled to open on Maundy Thursday in 2020 can only now be seen in May 2021. Two online exhibitions have been organised in the intervening period, but, for all those who entered the 2020 Awards, this is the exhibition that counts.

Given the number of entries, there has been ample scope for the curator and organisers to select work of considerable variety: canvas and paper, photographs and video, textiles and stitching; 3D metalwork and ceramics; bronze and stone sculpture; glass and pipework; a movement-sensitive robot alongside an interactive sign with sonic sensors. From more than 700 entries, the 50 artists featured in the Awards exhibition invite us to muse with them on what the theme “God is . . .” asks of us.

Brendan, quilt made from recycled fabrics, string, and threads, by Anne Smith

This is because art competitions also begin conversations. As the UK’s biggest art awards exploring spirituality through the visual arts, the Chaiya Art Awards are most like Australia’s The Blake Prize, which this year is being awarded for the 66th time. The Blake Prize seeks to start a wider public conversation that reconsiders the social role of art and poetry and the contribution that creative people make to the content and quality of public debate.

The Blake Prize is awarded to artists exploring the wider experience of spirituality, religion, and/or belief, and, as such, “has its finger on the pulse of current concerns about what it is to be human in these complex times”. The Chaiya Art Awards, in contrast, with roots in Christianity but open to people of all faiths and none, is asking who or what God is, and continuing an age-old conversation in a modern setting with contemporary eyes. It, too, is asking big questions while looking for inspiration from the wealth of the UK’s creatives. What have they found?

Glimpses of unvarnished reality which become moments of revelation are the pearls of great price or treasures buried to which artists attend; and that alertness to epiphany can clearly be discerned in much of the work included here. Rachel Ho’s imperfect porcelain paper-clay shelters are glazed with gold lustre on their cracks and embossed with an old Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Ho’s shelters are solace, hope, and transformation, speaking of new beginnings and renewal.

Anne Smith has fashioned from recycled fabrics, string, and threads a celebration of Brendan, a homeless man she knew. Although the homeless people she met weekly occupied little space in the world, she noticed the importance to them of their makeshift outfits. Her patchwork brings scraps and fragments of cloth together, and her sewn black line, depicting Brendan’s gentle face and pure eyes, is suffused and stitched with love. This recycled quilt reveals the face of God as surely as Veronica’s veil or the dream of St Martin.

Fiona Morley’s wire-sculptured face You are everything also links and unites in order to fashion a figure. Animals, insects, amphibians, and birds form an iconic ancestral face: an interconnected and evolving creation, culminating in an image of God.God, acrylic, mdf, sonic sensors and arduino, by Jo Fairfax

Megan Leigh, Ashar, and Xander Haywood are among those moving away from affirmation to find God in silence and space. Leigh and Ashar work with minimal and yet evocative brushstrokes, while Haywood’s style has more detail and precision. Nevertheless, each leaves significant spaces within the canvas which lead us into silent emptiness that is pregnant with still presence. Ashar quotes from Rumi: “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Reflection by Fred Judd then takes us into the beyond with his photograph of stained glass reflected in the font at Gloucester Cathedral. The centre is empty, but the reflections edging the font reveal a colourful reality beyond our sight.

These images integrate content with substance. Some images of devotion included seem to undercut what they depict. Sinead Attwell’s Unseen is a blur of movement and choppy brushstrokes depicting the stirring body of a friend who has lived experience of ME. Rather than the stillness of ME, Attwell focuses on an image of rising, for which the pleading hands at the base of her image have been praying, but with sufficient ambiguity that her figure could be recovering or expiring.

A gritty metallic print by Anila Hussain, which places in the foreground the hands of an elderly woman praying for healing from the long-term pain that riddles her body, is entitled God Heals, although the image seems to be depicting resilience in the face of continuing pain. The Rest by Jennifer Bell is an image of that wonderful experience of buoyancy experienced when floating in salt water. That experience, of being enveloped in light and held by water, may be the ultimate in peaceful experiences, but, here, is rendered somewhat didactic by the blood-red waters in which the bearded, cruciform Christ-like figure floats.

Brendan, quilt made from recycled fabrics, string, and threads, by Anne Smith

In addition to images that draw on the Christian tradition, there are also images that derive from Hinduism, Islam, and the Igorots, together with work by artists who are agnostics or atheists. God by Jo Fairfax cleverly and wittily combines the figurative and abstract, the affirmative and negative impulses that this exhibition and theme adroitly combine. His interactive wall-panel forms, deconstructs, reforms, and dismantles the word “God” at the touch of a human hand. God may be formed and dismantled by human actions, or may be as much in the deconstructed word as in its definition and recognition. By considering the position of God in relation to a mechanical universe, Fairfax may have created an image that is both cataphatic and apophatic.

We do not understand all that God is or is not, and yet this exhibition asks us to set aside time, shut out all distractions, revive senses, and explore with the artworks selected as a map to our journey. If you are seeking hidden treasure, seek and you will find.

The Revd Jonathan Evens was one of the judges for the awards.


“God is . . .” runs at Gallery@OXO, Bargehouse Street, London SE1 9PH from 14 to 23 May 2021, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. every day (till 4 p.m. on last day). It can also be viewed online at chaiyaartawards.co.uk

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)