The Council for the Arts at MIT just announced the recipients of the 2022 Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts, awarded for excellence in a body of work, to three students, including Christopher Joshua Benton (SMACT ’23) and Kwan Queenie Li (SMACT ’22).

Opening exhibition on Thursday, May 26 at 5:30pm at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery.

Christopher Joshua Benton

Christopher Joshua Benton (b. 1988) is a UAE-based artist working across installation, sculpture, and film. He works closely with communities and within neighborhoods to instigate collaboration while sharing stories of power, labor, and hope. His practice explores how the working-class uses culture and innovation to stage resistance to postcolonial and neoliberal forces. He’s an avid collector of discarded material and obsesses over the entangled narratives these found objects embody.

Past work has been presented in New York City, Tokyo, and the Emirates with solo presentations at the Venice Biennale, Abu Dhabi Art, Dubai Design Week, and the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial. His art has been featured on the BBC World News and in outlets like Dezeen, Vogue Arabia, and Vice Magazine. His writing and cultural criticism has appeared in Identity Magazine, The Flagpole, and Global Art Daily.

He is currently pursuing his Master of Science in Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT through the generous support of the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.


The World Was My Garden

Mixed media, 2021. Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The World was My Garden works with the palm tree as a metaphor for migration, labor economies, and the history of slavery in the Gulf. Charting a path from Zanzibar to the Khaleej and finally to the United States, the exhibition takes as a point of departure the coercion of the palm tree and the date as it probes into issues of the archive, lost genealogies, and American identity politics.

Combining film, installation, and sculpture, the show juxtaposes two stories: how the date palm lead to the height of the Indian Ocean slave trade around the turn of the 20th century and how that same palm tree ended up in California, which today is the second largest producer of dates. The centerpiece of the exhibition is My Plant Immigrants, which features a 5-meter tall medjoul date palm tree that’s magically suspended in the air, just like the commodities we buy, sell, and trade everyday.

Worked (So & So & On & On & So On & So On)

Mixed media, 2021.

The keymaker. The carpenter. The tailor. The upholsterer. Christopher Joshua Benton works closely with various craftsmen and friends to create totems and textiles that speak to the everyday objects that one sees on the street in working-class areas like Madinat Zayed (Abu Dhabi) and Satwa (Dubai). Touching on ideas of Arte Povera, the readymade, and autoconstrucción, each work is the result of extensive dialogue, play, and a flaneur’s eye for beauty. ​

Found objects are the foundation of each artwork, as it bears witness to invisible systems of labor and forgotten senses of home in the rapidly-shifting Gulf landscape. Benton scavenges through the remains of shuttered business, climbs up abandoned towers and construction sites, and spends time with craftsmen to cull out stories and lost histories of people and places. Cumulatively, these gestures act as a celebration of craft and the creative act. ​

How To Be at Rest

Found objects, 2020. Dubai, UAE.

Researched and collected over 2 years, How to Be at Rest, is an installation representing Christopher Benton’s personal archive of used bricolage chairs modified and designed by working-class South Asian and African laborers and artisans, which were sourced from industrial neighborhoods in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah.

Touching on ideas of found object art, arte povera, and the readymade, viewers are encouraged to consider the humble chair as a conduit to talk about critical issues of power, class, and aesthetic taste.

There’s a feeling of craft and uncanny that makes each piece of furniture totally unique and inspiring. Many of these chairs have started their lives elsewhere: in the office, at a school. In each one, you can see the hand of the craftsman—who is the same as the end-user. Most notably, every object does more with less, using simple materials found nearby. Leftover construction materials like cement, plywood street signs, and paint buckets feature prominently and signal towards UAE’s rapid growth. ​

Originally presented within the context of Dubai Design Week, the installation functions as a counterpoint to the bourgeoise, consumerist mode of the contemporary design fair, while offering space and visibility to outsider voices who are often less-than-seen.

East East Vol. IV: The Curio Shop

Mixed media, 2021. BLOCKHOUSE & HB Nezu, Tokyo, Japan.

For his debut presentation in Tokyo, Japan, Christopher Joshua Benton showed a mixed media collection of textile, sculpture, and film works. Curated by Sophie Mayuko Arni, the exhibition aimed to create cross-cultural dialogues between the UAE and Japan, traveling in revised configurations across 3 locations, including BLOCKHOUSE, HB.Nezu, and ILY Art Hub.

About the award:

The Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts is awarded to MIT students for excellence in a body of artistic work. All currently registered MIT students (graduate and undergraduate) are eligible to apply.

The Schnitzer Prize was established in 1996 through an endowment from Harold and Arlene Schnitzer of Portland, Oregon. Harold Schnitzer, a real estate investor, graduated from MIT in 1944 with a degree in metallurgy.

Up to four prizes will be awarded: three graduate student prizes, accompanied by an award of $5,000 to each recipient, and up to one undergraduate prize accompanied by an award of $2,500. The Selection Committee, comprised of members of the Council for the Arts at MIT and members of the MIT visual arts community, evaluates applications based on the level of excellence displayed in the applicant’s body of work.

In addition to this digital exhibition, recipients of the 2022 Schnitzer Prize are featured in a Wiesner Student Art Gallery group exhibition in person in May 2022.