Last night, when the Palestinian-born artist Emily Jacir beat out five heavyweight finalists to win the Guggenheim's $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize — one of the most influential international art awards — she said it was as if a page in recent cultural history was being turned. "Particularly in America as an Arab-American, to win this award and have an exhibition at the Guggenheim museum, I feel incredibly honored," Jacir told us at the Guggenheim's gala awards party last night. "It's a prestigious award, and the climate in this country, when it comes to the larger Arab narrative or Arab-American narrative, it hasn't been open to them. So it has a special significance now. It has been very difficult for Arab-Americans since 9/11 to be a part of institutions like this, but we feel like we are part of these institutions, that our stories are part of this country as well." A 37-year-old artist who often uses text-based works, video, social interventions, and various other media to examine the sometimes fragile bonds between Palestinian exile communities in America and her homeland, Jacir herself embodies a bridge between the West and the Middle East — a consideration that Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim's chief curator and one of the prize's five jurors, said impacted the win. "I think all art is political, so of course that was part of the discussion," Spector said. "You can't talk about her work without that."
Splitting her time between studios in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Bushwick, Jacir was raised in Palestine and attended the American School in Saudi Arabia, which explains how she acquired her flawless New York accent. "It's perfect, I know," she said, her voluminous curly brown hair falling over her red dress. "I got it in Saudi Arabia, and then I went to college in Texas and graduate school in Memphis, and actually when I talk to my friends from Memphis, a southern twang inflects my accent." She said she wasn't sure how she would use her award money, but Spector said she'd talked about needing a new apartment and studio. "This is someone for whom $100,000 will really make a difference," Spector said. "That's not the case for every artist." But Jacir says she's comfortable at the moment in Bushwick, which reminds her of Ramallah. "There are gunshots at night so I feel really at home," she says. "Seriously."