Celebrating this Year’s Governor General’s Award Winners

Landon Mackenzie, Macke it to Thy Other Side, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 228 x 313 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

From intimate portraits of life on the fringes to experimental film and cartographic paintings, the works of this year’s recipients of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGAVMA) are among the most distinctive contributions to contemporary art in Canada.

The GGAVMAs, funded annually by the Canada Council for the Arts, aim to celebrate homegrown talent while vaulting artists — with distinguished careers in painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, architecture, film, new media, audio, and fine craft — to the international stage.

The 2017 winners — Michèle Cournoyer, Mike Hoolboom, Shelagh Keeley, Glenn Lewis, Landon Mackenzie, Philip Monk, Shelley Niro, and Pamela Ritchie — recently joined Rhiannon Vogl, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), onstage for an evening of conversation. A group exhibition of their works, curated by Vogl, will be on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from April 8 to September 4, 2017.

Philip Monk, Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic. Installation: Art Gallery of York University, January 11—March 11, 2012. Photo: Cheryl O'Brien

“What is most interesting, vital and valuable about my work is really working with living artists,” said Vogl during the event. “Each year, I’m presented with an amazing selection of artists to work with for this exhibition, and I think that it’s a really interesting approach for us this year to not only have their work on view in Winnipeg, but also to have this chance to have a conversation with the artists.”

The work of this year’s honorees reflects broad societal concerns, including colonial histories, social inequities, sexuality and identity, and living with HIV, in intimate and imaginative ways. They bring “several decades of artistic development” to their field of practice, and have made important contributions “as leaders, innovators, mentors and teachers,” said Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, at the same event.

Over the course of the evening’s conversation, the artists talked about their practices and processes, as well as the importance of art education in their personal development. Profiles and short films of the GG Award recipients at work can be viewed on the Canada Council for the Arts website

Shelley Niro, Dressing Warrior, 2012, digital photograph, 101.6 cm x 152.4 cm

“On a day-to-day basis, [art is] all I do, that’s all I think about,” said Shelley Niro, an artist whose work draws upon many forms of art making, from beadwork and painting to basket-weaving, installation art and feature film. “It’s a continuous effort to think of ideas, to execute those ideas and to find funding.”

Like Niro, several of the GGAVMA winners work across disciplines, blending conventional modes of production, and bridging the gap between the personal and the political. Shelagh Keeley, a cross-disciplinary artist, is known for wall drawings that mimic the visceral nature of poetry. And filmmaker Michèle Cournoyer has drawn with black ink on paper to create the animation for her surrealistic short film, Le Chapeau (1999), exploring an exotic dancer’s experience of incest.

Michèle Cournoyer, The Hat, 1999, black ink drawings on paper, 6 min 30 sec, 35 mm colour. Collection: National Film Board of Canada

Mike Hoolboom, an experimental filmmaker who made a 2002 biopic about avant-garde filmmaker Tom Chomont, discussed the question of “how much to leave out” in a work of biography, while Philip Monk, a Toronto writer and curator who has worked in the past with Hoolboom, reflected on the changing nature of Canada as a nation, and his role in documenting a history of Toronto’s art scene. Monk was selected to receive the Outstanding Contribution Award as part of this year’s GGAVMAs.

Pamela Ritchie, a jewellery artist in Halifax, and winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Craft, combines traditional techniques and newer technologies to craft pieces with striking colour, texture and composition. Onstage, Ritchie spoke about her observations as an educator for more than 30 years, as did Landon Mackenzie, whose large-format paintings explore the mapping and remapping of Canada — works she considers more representational than abstract.

Glenn Lewis, Survival Paradise, 1980, serigraphs with Canon prints, 55.88 x 76.2 cm each. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

Vancouver-based artist Glenn Lewis, with a storied career in mixed media, sculpture and ceramics, said he believes art education helps people to see beyond their daily lives. “When I was in art school and in a drawing class,” Lewis said, “I always thought that I was learning to see around the other side of the tree.”

Curious to see and learn more? Meet the artists at a public opening of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts group exhibition on April 7 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The exhibition will be on view from April 8 to September 4, 2017.

About the Author