Artists of the Year: Sobey Art Award 2019 in Edmonton

The 2019 Sobey Art Award finalists: Anne Low, Nicolas Grenier, Kablusiak, D’Arcy Wilson and Stephanie Comilang

Once again, it is time to honour the very best in contemporary Canadian art.

This year, the 2019 Sobey Art Award exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, is being shown at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Each year the exhibition presents artwork by the finalists, five of the country’s most exciting young artists, and serves as the setting for the award presentation in November. The prize, first awarded in 2002, recognizes outstanding work by Canadian artists 40 years of age and under. Past winners include some of the country’s most celebrated talents, such as Brian Jungen, the late Annie Pootoogook, David Altmejd and 2018 winner Kapwani Kiwanga. This year’s short list surveys the incredible breadth of creative practice across Canada today — from a painter who seeks to portray power structures to a filmmaker telling the stories of migrant workers through a drone named "Paradise".

We sent each of the five finalists vying for the $100,000 prize a questionnaire to better get to know what they do and why they do it. Here are their responses:  


Nicolas Grenier : Quebec
Based in Montreal and Los Angeles

Nicolas Grenier, From Our Position, Yours is a Mystery, 2017. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 203 x 152cm. Collection Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran. Photo: Paul Litherland.

How would you describe your art?

I work mostly with visual representation, from painting and architectural installations to conceptual models and experiments that test socio-economic dynamics.  

Your work explores organization, systems, structures and often how these frameworks relate to power. How does painting help express the types of relationships you are interested in exploring?

Painting is an interesting medium — it's old and traditional, and in that respect it has inherent qualities that keep it grounded. It is the most primary visual language, pigments on a flat surface, and to me it acts as a constant reminder of the temporality and physicality of our bodies. By contrast, the types of socio-political power dynamics that I often explore are rather intangible, diffused and abstract. The 2016 US election, for example, is a giant set of issues that lives mostly on media platforms, where we engage with the content in idiosyncratic ways, often in echo chambers or through confrontation. What I am trying to do is to move the discussion into a meditative space, where our interaction with the subject is slowed down by the visual language. So the paint brings a body and a temporality to the ideas, and hopefully can take political issues from a place that is dominated by speed and polarization to a place that is more metaphysical, where the density of time and space feels different.

Not all of your ideas are proposed in paint, many take the form of performances, installation and relational experiments. How do these parts relate to your painting practice?

Overall, the work is always based on research, whether it takes the form of a painting or a lecture-performance. At the moment, I am particularly involved with research on economic structures, and some of this research will feed my painting practice. But paintings are limited by the problematic economy in which they exist, and I can't ignore that. So whatever income I will get from sales will be used to finance the long-term development of non-monetary economic systems that I am working on. I try to create an ecosystem in which both the artistic and the political dimensions of practice can respond to each other.

What are you bringing to the Sobey Art Award exhibition?

For the exhibition I am bringing a selection of paintings from the last few years, and I have designed a site-specific installation that also includes two new works. One is an audio work that questions what it means to be making art in the times we are living in, and the other is a "mapping exercise,” a kind of survey that visitors are invited to fill in.  


Kablusiak: Prairies and North
Based in Mohkinstsis/Calgary

Kablusiak, NorthMart, 2018. Digital inkjet print on hahnemuhle photo rag paper. Edition 2/3. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, purchased with funds from the Canada Council New Chapter Grant Program

How would you describe your art and how you make it?

I am a multi-disciplinary artist who imbues a variety of mediums with ironic humour to address cultural displacement. The light-hearted nature of my practice extends gestures of empathy and solidarity; these interests invite a reconsideration of the perceptions of contemporary Indigeneity. 

You work in many different media. How do you choose what form a project will take? It seems like the concept perhaps drives the medium …

Correct, the concept drives the medium. I have visual forms I often like to work with, as I feel they have set a precedent in my practice to represent certain things (for example, the soapstone sculptures and the use of the ghost costume). But when I have a concept I want to see through, that concept will drive what form it will take in the real world.

How do you feel you deploy humour in your art and why is that something of a chosen mode within your practice? 

I try to deploy humour sometimes in subtle ways or in ways that I think could be relatable, but I like to bank on the humour associated with absurdity. I choose it because humour is a marked way to deal with trauma, especially for Indigenous folks. 

What are some of the common misconceptions you encounter as an Inuvialuit artist and how does your work address them?

I feel I encounter the exotification of Inuit artists, being asked to speak for all Inuit, people not knowing about the four distinct regions of Inuit Nunangat, being treated as a human google machine (and these don't only apply to Inuvialuit artists; I feel that any BIPOC person has to deal with these things. I suppose they are known as microaggressions). I directly like to poke fun at these misconceptions as I feel that these issues won't go away until there are as many Inuvialuit/Inuit/BIPOC artists that are as valued and praised as white artists in the art world, both in Canada and beyond.

What are you bringing to the Sobey Art Award exhibition?

The works in the show include some new works (three new sculptures, seven new drawings and one new photo projection project) being shown alongside older works (Inuvik ghost photos, a two-channel karaoke video as well as some sculptures from before).


Stephanie Comilang: Ontario
Based in Toronto and Berlin

Stephanie Comilang, still from Yesterday in The Years 1886 & 2017, 2017. 2-channel video installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. © Stephanie Comilang. Photo: Art Gallery of Kitchener Waterloo

How would you describe your art and how you make it?

I tend to start with a real-life situation and then create other narratives on top of that. But the themes I keep coming back to are ideas around home and how, filtered through the lens of migrants, this idea becomes fluid. More recently, I've been interested in how the female figure, not the body, but maybe the female spirit moves through space, whether she be a migrant, a ghost, a drone or a shaman. How does the Filipina migrant living in Hong Kong create space for herself, for example?

You have described your films as “science fiction documentaries.” What does this mean and why have you chosen this form as the best way to tell the stories you’re interested in?

I like using the combination of words “science fiction documentary” because it evokes a clear picture of two opposing concepts. I’m interested in real-life stories and being told these stories by the people themselves. That is usually a starting point for me: listening to a truth that is theirs and then shifting the narrative to create a new one. For example, in my piece Yesterday in the Years 1886 & 2017, the pineapple is an object that comes up in both Lourdes’ and Jose’s story lines, which didn’t exist before. Lourdes talks about the fruit as a cherished food item from home that was exorbitantly expensive to buy in Berlin in the 1970s, while Jose tells the story of a bomb disguised as an ornate, jewel-encrusted pineapple that was offered to colonizers. In Lourdes’ original story, the pineapple replaced the chayote fruit and in Jose’s story, it was a pomegranate. The narrator in Yesterday also weaves a pineapple into her story, a burnt one, and uses it as a way to describe the colour of her skin. The pineapple is a fruit that has travelled along with the history of colonization, and it follows a line from South America to Europe and, finally, Asia. The fruit brings with it a migration history that parallels the movement and trajectory of characters in this work. 

What drew you to work with a drone? How does that work transform or subvert the drone's traditional roles as military and surveillance? I have heard you consider your drone female …

I like the drone for a number of reasons. In my films, she – "Paradise" – exists as an entity who moves through history and alternate histories. As she interacts with people and places and experiences them, the information she gathers through her encounters is held and stored within her cache. She is rendered as a supercomputer, carrying information as well as emotion. I like thinking about her in this way: she becomes all of the things that get uploaded onto her, and she carries all of those things with her. Because the things she lives through and the people she meets are constantly redefining what home is, Paradise is continually altering her definitions of home. Home and utopias are shifting ideas and concepts to me. 
Paradise does encompass a femininity and “femaleness.” When I initially thought of Paradise as a character I was working through different possibilities of who could narrate, be the voice. During this time, I was in Berlin and my mother — who was helping me with translations — was in Toronto, and we would communicate over Skype. It wasn’t until I recorded her on my phone, while she recited some translations to me, and played them back, that I heard the sound and voice that I wanted. And it made sense to me to use my mother’s voice. Paradise is maternal and watchful. She is a caregiver and an emotional cyborg. She sympathizes with you.

What are you bringing to the Sobey Art Award exhibition?

I am bringing two video installations to the Sobey exhibition. Two different migrant narratives that both contain the ghost/drone character, Paradise. They are called Yesterday in the Years 1886 & 2017 and Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come To Me, Paradise).


Anne Low: West Coast and Yukon
Based in Montreal

Anne Low, Dust bed, 2018. Hand woven silk, cotton foam, 14 x 14 x 53 inches. © Anne Low. Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka

How would you describe your art and how you make it?

I make sculpture that is of a domestic and human scale. I work mostly alone, in my studio, and much, if not all of my work is made by hand in some capacity. 

What is your interest in traditional techniques of production? You have described your sculpture as “coming through the side door of craft.”

I approach making sculpture through disciplines that are typically more associated with decorative art. I’m interested in material forms of knowledge production and the virtuosity of intelligence that exists within material practices that sit outside of the realm of art.

What drew you to these particular elements of our material culture — furniture, architectural details, clothing, linens, drapery — as your building blocks?

Material culture, specifically weaving, is a way for me to produce meaning for myself. More generally, I am interested in how inflections of subjectivity are expressed in the history of functional objects.

Do your re-combinations build some broader narrative arising from their constituent parts? Or are you looking to create something entirely new? 

My work is a process of translation and extrapolation that comes from my own research into material history. The work is always what is in front of the viewer, I’m not seeking to reference. I produce forms that are made now and as a result they can only be contemporary.

What are you bringing to the Sobey Art Award exhibition?

I am bringing a group of sculptures, some of which are new, some of which I have shown before. The exhibition as a form is central to what I do, and the works I have selected are being installed to produce meaning in relation to each other.


D’Arcy Wilson: Atlantic
Based in Corner Brook

D'Arcy Wilson, The Memorialist, video still "The Dodo Manege Carousel", 2016. © D'Arcy Wilson

How would you describe your art and how you make it?

My art practice is interdisciplinary and each project tends to be realized through a variety of media. Nevertheless, they are generally connected through an ongoing theme. My work considers the tension between care and harm in Western culture’s relationship to nature, and I often use my own body as a performer or persona to address this.

What is the relationship between research, performance and material production in your practice?

I view research as a creative practice in its own right. Working through archives, for example, I am looking for information of course, but I am also actively searching for metaphors. Performance happens intuitively. For me, there is immediacy with performance, and by using my own body, I can implicate myself in the history and the stories I’m trying to unpack. I process my ideas through material production, but I am also drawn to labour-intensive practices — time and labour are relatable to diverse audiences, and so the material practice becomes another way to connect with the viewer. The art objects that result become the residue and the souvenirs of larger bodies of work, or ephemeral performances.

Can you describe the Memorialist persona you have created as well as the broader projects you have embarked on around Andrew Downs’ zoo?

The Memorialist persona is a pseudo-historian who is bringing to light the little-known story of Andrew Downs’ Zoological Gardens – an early zoo that opened at the edge of the young settler city of Halifax, in which animal habitats were constructed by the proprietor (Andrew Downs) within a forest (the animals’ natural habitat). I have relied on personas before in my practice; they are often naïve or clearly delusional in their efforts to connect with other animals. But the persona in The Memorialist is different. This persona is more of a reflection of myself, created in order to unfold the complexities of this time period. I have travelled in costume to follow Andrew Downs’ footsteps on his collecting journeys in the UK, and now I lecture about the experience, but the lecture breaks down into a sort of eulogy for lost wildlife. Andrew Downs referred to his zoological gardens as a memorial and he referred to himself as “The Memorialist.” I’ve adopted the same name.

What are you bringing to the Sobey Art Award exhibition?

I am presenting a version of The Memorialist – it’s an ongoing project that evolves, as I continue to learn more about Andrew Downs’ Zoological Gardens.


The Sobey Art Award exhibition of works by the five shortlisted artists will be presented at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton from October 5, 2019 to January 5, 2020. The winner of the Award will be announced at a gala hosted by the Art Gallery of Alberta on November 15, 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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