Abbas Akhavan Wins 2015 Sobey Art Award


Abbas Akhavan. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer

Toronto-based artist Abbas Akhavan is this year’s winner of the prestigious Sobey Art Award. The drawing, installation, video and performance artist claimed the prize on October 28 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Award Announcement Gala.


“It feels kind of dreamy and surreal,” Akhavan said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “I feel a great sense of encouragement, re-affirmation and a boost of confidence in what I’ve done.”

Akhavan was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1977. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University in 2004 and his Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia in 2006. He has been exhibited extensively across Canada, the United States, Europe, Asia, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, and he is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2014.

His art explores concepts of place – both in the domestic and public spheres – through site-specific installations. In Study for a Monument (2013), for which he was awarded the Abraaj, Akhavan collected images of plants and flora native to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq and sculpted physical versions of them in wax. After pouring them into bronze sculptures, Akhavan laid them on white cotton sheets to symbolize the funerary traditions that memorials and monuments commemorate.


Abbas Akhavan, Fatigues (2014), Taxidermy White-Tailed Deer. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer

For the Sobey Art Award exhibition, Akhavan and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Chief Curator Sarah Fillmore selected Fatigues (2014), an artwork that was previously shown at the Montreal Biennale at the Musée d’art contemporain. The installation employs taxidermy and features animals placed throughout the museum in death postures. A white-tailed deer, hunted and killed, lies on the floor with his head craned backwards. Birds that have flown into glass skyscrapers lay lifeless with their feet in the air. A fox, hit by a car, is curled up in a corner.

“With this installation, Akhavan offers a commentary on the natural and built environments and the creatures that inhabit them," Fillmore said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Each animal has met its demise through its contact with humans. It’s a very emotionally charged, powerful work that offers viewers a visceral response as they walk through.”

Akhavan’s drawings, video and performance art also explore these concepts of landscape, domesticity, hospitality and hostility.

Abbas Akhavan, Fatigues (2014), Taxidermy Red Fox. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer 

The Sobey Art Award is a $50,000 prize presented annually to a contemporary Canadian artist. It was established in 2002 by the former chair of the National Gallery of Canada, Donald Sobey, and is awarded to an artist under 40 who has exhibited his or her work within 18 months of being nominated. “The award was established with an eye to fill a considerable gap in the awards landscape,” says Fillmore. “There were awards for recognizing lifetime achievements, but none to stimulate young artists’ careers. The Sobey Art Award satisfied that need in an interesting way.”

Every year, a jury of curators from across Canada determines the winner from a shortlist of five contenders, each representing different regions of the country. This year’s finalists, alongside Akhavan (Ontario), were Raymond Boisjoly (West Coast), Sarah Anne Johnson (Prairies and the North), Jon Rafman (Quebec) and Lisa Lipton (Atlantic). Their works are also featured in the exhibition.

For Akhavan, the exhibition is an opportunity to celebrate the talent of the contenders, whom he says are equally deserving of the award. “The Sobey Family very generously offers this award, but I wish that it was not a competition,” he says. “Having said that, the award has imbued me with a responsibility to reciprocate acts of generosity. Generosity begets generosity, and my ambition is that we can all reciprocate. Not just in the arts, but in life in general.”

Previous winners of the award include Nadya Myre (2014), Daniel Young & Christian Giroux (2011), David Altmejd (2009)  and Annie Pootoogook (2006), all of whom are included in the national collection at the NGC.

The 2015 Sobey Art Award exhibition is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until January 3, 2016.

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