Last Wednesday, Nova Scotia artist Ursula Johnson was awarded the 2017 Sobey Art Award at a gala ceremony held at the University of Toronto Art Museum. Johnson was awarded $50,000, making her the first artist from the Atlantic region to win the Sobey Art Award.
Established in 2001, the Sobey Art Award has become Canada’s most prominent award for contemporary art. The award is jointly administered by the Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada. It is annually presented to a Canadian contemporary artist under 40-years-old.
Johnson, as a multidisciplinary Mi’kmaq artist, incorporates performance and site-specific installation into her artwork to express colonialism and its effect on indigenous cultural practices. Her pieces often combine traditional aboriginal art forms, including basket weaving—a cultural practice unique to her Mi’kmaq community—with contemporary works so that viewers can explore their own identity and ancestry.
One of Johnson’s pieces included an animal cage as a wire fence wraps around a moose fence in the middle of the room. When I had lingered by the gate I was prompted by an attending guide to enter the cage. Positioning myself at the center of the long wooden cage, I felt contradicting emotions. While I felt entrapped inside the moose and wire fencing, looking out to a modern-like scenery of the woods in the vinyl wallpaper, I felt as if I were being scrutinized under the red lighting. When I looked up and noted the cage had no roof, a detail that is not noticed from the outside, I felt a bit liberated knowing I wasn’t completely enclosed. I headed to the gate only to have the guide explain to me that the gate only opened from the outside and that I had to find the other exits.
Upon close inspection, I noted that hidden within the sides of the moose fence were doors that could open once unhinged from the outside. Johnson’s art piece demonstrated colonial history and its effects on her Mi’kmaq cultural heritage as the natural moose fencing creates a tension with the heavy presence of steel and sense of entrapment.
Another intriguing artwork displayed in the Sobey Art Award exhibition is by Jacynthe Carrier, a shortlist finalist from Quebec. Through the medium of photography and videography, Carrier captures humanity’s delicate relationship with its environment. Carrier uses the expanse of three rooms, with the centre room displaying a series of photographs along its wall that opens up to rooms displaying videos on opposing sides. This is possibly an attempt to illustrate a connection between the three pieces of work. In the room to the left, a video shows people, most of whom are wearing semi-formal attire and jewelry, on the sand arranging rocks with no particular order but with precise care. The room to the right of the center displays a video of people in a workshop moving randomly yet acutely with purpose. The repetitive and almost habitual actions of the people and the sense of dissonance within humans and nature explicably illustrates the fragile relationship between humans and the environment.
The shortlist of finalists for the 2017 Sobey Art Award, each of whom received $10,000, included four other artists: Raymond Boisjoly of the West Coast and Yukon; Divya Mehra of the Prairies and the North; Bridget Moser of Ontario; and Jacynthe Carrier of Quebec.
The exhibition of the artwork by this year’s five shortlist finalists will continue at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto until December 9.