The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award 2014 Winner Challenges Linguistic Perceptions through Art

A view of an exterior of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.
A view of an exterior of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

Press Release

Winning project ‘Abjad’ presents a series of wooden sculptures visualizing the development of alphabets across time

NYU Abu Dhabi fourth-year student Erin Meekhof was named the winner of the second annual Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award for her installation art proposal Abjad. The artwork will comprise five large wooden sculptures, each representing a different phoneme, or unit of sound, and the history of how its visual representation developed from a pictogram to English and Arabic.

“Reconstructing the letters like this creates a new letter; one that still represents a single sound but tells two histories,” Meekhof said.

The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Shamsa Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, is an art award presented by the NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Institute in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF). Open to UAE-based students and recent graduates, the award was established to encourage and celebrate large-scale public art in the UAE.

The winning project was selected from 27 entries, and was selected for its originality, multidisciplinary nature, and scope of research. The work will be unveiled on March 16, 2014, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival Education Programme, and will tour locations throughout the UAE.

The project was inspired by Meekhof’s own visual exploration of language. When studying linguistics and researching the history of alphabets, she was struck to discover that the Arabic and Roman alphabets, often posed as opposites, had a common root in the Phoenician alphabet. Through her own experience as an American studying in the UAE, she saw potential to use this to comment on the ways that perceptions of language can divide and unite us.

“Abjad is a response to myself before living here, to those who see either language and culture as hopelessly foreign, and to those who live in bilingual worlds and want to find out what’s at the bottom of it,” she explained. “I want every viewer to go through a process of discovery in engaging with these sculptures, and to be challenged to rethink their own linguistic divisions and assumptions.”

ADMAF Founder H.E. Mrs Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo said: “The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award continues to reinforce the importance of nurturing young, emerging artists throughout the UAE, and the significant contribution they can make to the nation’s thriving visual arts sector. This year’s Award winner not only presented an intriguing artistic concept that unites us all in exploring the roots of our shared linguistic heritage, but it also demonstrated outstanding acumen in project management planning, which in itself, calls for the application of a range of skills that are relevant far beyond the realm of visual art. In a year that the Abu Dhabi Festival highlights the role of creative innovation in society, I am delighted that the premiere of such a unique public artwork is part of the program.”

Reindert Falkenburg, NYUAD Vice Provost of Intellectual and Cultural Outreach, said: “The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award presents UAE youth with a unique platform that challenges them not only to develop a creative and thought-provoking artistic concept, but also to think through how to bring these ideas to life within a determined budget and timeline. All of those submitting their proposals have had to think through very practical considerations, from size and material, to labor and production, to the final display of their work. We hope that this experience will continue to motivate and develop young artists here in the UAE.”

About Jeanne and Christo


About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from 120 nations and speak over 120 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.