Kapwani Kiwanga, Simple Enclosure, 2018. Paint, wood, glass and drywall. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: NGC

Champions of Art in Canada: the 2018 Sobey Art Award

For one evening at the beginning of October, in the Austrian birthplace of Mozart and home of the popular von Trapp family, Canadian art was the talk of the Salzburger Kunstverein. Although the local members of the public and the group of European journalists present might not know Whitehorse from Winnipeg, they gathered to hear Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada and Chair of the 2018 Sobey Art Award, discuss the practices of the five Canadian artists selected from regions across the country as finalists for one of Canada's richest and most prestigious art awards.

One focus of Drouin-Brisebois' presentation was the growing role of such art prizes within curatorial work and among cultural institutions looking to help develop the profile of their artists beyond national borders. This was of particular interest to the audience at the Kunstverein, one of Austria’s oldest art galleries of contemporary art. “Maybe the best way to draw greater attention to Canadian artists is by also giving them greater visibility outside of Canada, by increasing their international presence,” Drouin-Brisebois commented back in Ottawa. “What kinds of opportunities could that lead to?”

Joi T. Arcand, ᐆᑌ ᓃᑳᓅx (ōtē nīkānōhk), 2018. Vinyl installation. ©  Joi T. Arcand Photo: NGC

The Salzburger Kunstverein is home to the award’s 2018 international juror, Séamus Kealy, who serves as its director. Kealy is the Sobey Art Award’s third international juror, a feature introduced in 2016, the year the National Gallery of Canada began jointly administering the award with the Sobey Art Foundation. The position was intended as an impartial voice among the regional jurors, as well as a perspective familiar with contemporary practice outside of Canada. It also enables exchange, such as this talk at the Kunstverein.

The Sobey Art Award has grown considerably since it launched in 2002. The 2018 winner receives $100,000, the other shortlisters get $25,000, and $2000 each to the remaining 20 artists of the long list. The enhancements aren’t only monetary, however. “One of the aims was to shift the competition from a battle of five regions, to placing emphasis on the individual artists”, Drouin-Brisebois says.

Jordan Bennett, Ice Fishing, 2014–18. Multi-component interactive installation; sculpture, video, audio, salt beef buckets, fishing rods, 3D animations on iPad. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Produced under the NFB/imagineNATIVE Digital Project Prize, a partnership between the National Film Board and imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.  ©Jordan Bennett Photo: NGC

A new element this year is the award's partnership with well-established international residency programs, awarding admission and funds for travel, material and living expenses to three artists and artist teams selected from the long list. Halifax-based artist Lou Sheppard will participate in a residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn; Toronto video and performance duo Life of a Craphead will take part in a program at the Delfina Foundation in London, England; and Krista Belle Stewart, who lives and works in Vancouver, will participate in a residency and exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. It is a means of further recognizing the talents of the long list, Drouin-Brisebois explains, to grant them greater visibility and to expand their networks, while also investing in their development as artists.   

Jeneen Frei Njootli, I Am She, 2018, steel, grease, electronic equipment and sound, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist.; and Jeneen Frei Njootli and Stanley Grafton Njootli, I CAN’T MAKE YOU THOSE MITTS BECAUSE THERE IS A HOLE IN MY HEART AND MY HANDS HURT (brother vadzaih), 2018. Caribou hide and steel pole. Collection of the artists. Photo: NGC

Raised between Canada and Ireland, Kealy worked as curator at the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Blackwood Gallery and then director of The Model in Sligo, Ireland, before his tenure in Salzburg. He calls the whole experience thus far “a delightful and real surprise”. Having lived away from Canada for ten years – although working frequently with Canadian artists, he points out – “it offered a tremendous snapshot of everything that’s happening across the country right now. Every region came up with more than one artist that was totally eligible for the short list.” Looking over the long list of 25 artists, he was also thrilled to be introduced to so many contemporary talents.

Jon Rafman, Poor Magic, 2017. Single-channel HD video with stereo sound and sculptural seating installation (polyutherane foam, wood, paint, chairs), dimensions variable. 7:08 min. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: NGC

Taking the temperature of Canadian art in this way, what struck him most was the presence of Indigenous art practices, which are well represented on both the short and long lists. “Much more visible than it had been a decade ago,” he says. “And not just that it is present, but that it is thriving, and that it is a very important aspect of what’s happening in contemporary Canadian culture.” 

Commenting on the ways the prize has recently begun to evolve, Kealy says it has made the Sobey Art Award “more complex in a positive way”. It better fulfills the task of supporting artists in their careers, and getting their work out internationally can be an important part of that, he says. “As well as awarding a single prize, it has a long view on developing Canadian art.”

Kapwani Kiwanga, Simple Enclosure, 2018. Paint, wood, glass and drywall, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: NGC

When Drouin-Brisebois walks through the National Gallery of Canada’s  Sobey Art Award Exhibition — past Jordan Bennett’s sculptural fishing shack entranceway and Jeneen Frei Njootli’s grease-marked steel plates, for example — she feels happy, she says. Her goal has been to give viewers five distinct experiences, showcasing the strong, singular voices of each of the finalists. This is the mission the Sobey Art Award continues on: to raise up Canada’s art-makers. The winner of the 2018 Sobey Art Award is Kapwani Kiwanga.


The Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 10, 2019. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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