Together, For Better or Worse: Five Takes on Community from the Finalists in the 2017 Sobey Art Award
The concept of “community” is a double-edged sword. While communities support individuals by allowing self-actualization, they may also exclude individuals by hindering development. A keen awareness of the rewards and failures of living in a community binds the varying art practices of this year’s finalists for the Sobey Art Award.
Since its inception in 2002, the Sobey Art Award has fostered the careers of exceptional Canadian artists and the diverse conversations engendered by their work. This year’s finalists carefully examine our relationships with each other — personal and national, human and animal, individual and collective — while admitting that misunderstandings, mistakes and awkward moments have and continue to take place.
Divya Mehra (the Prairies and the North) pushes us to see how racism and ethnic stereotypes are still prevalent in Canadian society. Born in Winnipeg to immigrant parents from India, Mehra herself witnessed this fraught reality. Symbolizing the failure of the American dream, a crushed gold vintage Jaguar dominates her section of the exhibition. The car is joined by personal objects like the brass base of a statue of the deity Ganesh. The rest of the statue was sawed from the base and stolen from her family’s restaurant.
For Ursula Johnson (Atlantic Canada), community is never only human. An artist of Mi’Kmaw First Nation ancestry, Johnson explores the ways contemporary people become estranged from their traditions and from plant and animal life. Her installation Moose Fence, built specifically for this exhibition, explores the failed design of moose fences, which line highways in Eastern Canada. Made to assist ungulates cross the highway, the fencing’s one-way gates actually fragment animal populations and often trap them in its terrifying structure.
Raymond Boisjoly (the West Coast and the Yukon) makes text-based work that is intentionally hard to decipher in order to showcase what he calls “models for misunderstanding.” An artist of Haida and Québécois descent, Boisjoly is interested in the ways indigeneity, with its experience of difference, can be represented conceptually rather than through visual stereotypes like beads and totem poles. In his installation, the word “discordancy” is printed onto coloured sheets of paper spaced just far enough apart to make the word barely legible.
Awkward social interactions are the currency in Bridget Moser’s (Ontario) performances and videos. Moser honed her stage persona in Doored, the underground Toronto art collective and event series. In two videos made for this exhibition, Moser is seen interacting with a variety of mundane consumer items, all chosen according to the 2016 Pantone colours, Rose Quartz and Serenity. Wearing pink flip-flops and posing existential questions about social situations, Moser lip-synchs into a pink blow dryer before rolling herself up in a pink shag carpet.
The simple beauty of community is central to Jacynthe Carrier’s (Québec) videos and photographs. “This nomination is me, but it’s also all the people I work with,” says Carrier. In her video Script (2014), we see a cast of people interacting mysteriously with large wooden bleachers. Close up shots focus on a pair of hands forming piles of sawdust, then another pair of hands cutting twine. What the hands are working on is never revealed. Rather than focusing on the end product of labour, Carrier’s work concentrates on the poetics of the human form: the way body parts touch and interact with their surroundings.
The finalists for the 2017 Sobey Art Award make visual art that speaks to the challenges faced in communities across Canada: racism (Mehra), environmental misuse (Johnson) and miscommunication (Boisjoly). This year’s finalists also remind us that our awkward struggles to fit into society are not solitary (Moser) and that there is communal celebration in collective labour (Carrier), a beauty in contact that exceeds mere productivity.
The 2017 Sobey Art Award exhibition, featuring the work of the five finalists, is on view until December 9, 2017 at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Ursula Johnson was awarded the grand prize on October 25. She is the first artist nominated from the Atlantic region to receive the award since its inception in 2002.