State of the Art: The 2016 Sobey Art Award Longlist

On April 13, 2016, the National Gallery of Canada announced the longlist for the Sobey Art Award. From the conceptual work of artists like Raymond Boisjoly and Derek Sullivan to the perfomance-based work of Meryl McMaster and Lisa Lipton, to artists like Brenda Draney (painting), Jessica Eaton (photography), and Karen Tam (installation) who put a new spin on traditional media, the Sobey Art Award longlist not only serves as something of a who’s who in Canadian contemporary art, but also takes the pulse of current art practices across the country.

“This year’s longlist features numerous multidisciplinary artists creating some interesting and ambitious work,” said Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Chair of the Sobey Art Award and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), in an interview with NGC Magazine. There are also a considerable number of conceptual artists creating work that’s not just sculpture, not just drawing, not just installation or photograph — there’s an extra layer. It’s really much more about the idea.”

The Sobey longlist consists of five artists from each of five regionsWest Coast and Yukon, Prairies and the North, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic. Within a relatively tight timeframe, regional jurors pored over portfolios and recommendations, attended exhibitions, and made studio visits. “The regional focus is interesting,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “Some of these artists go from one region to another, and some have represented different regions over the years. However, where I think the regional model really works is that it’s a process whereby the West Coast gets to know about artists on the East Coast, and vice-versa.”

This year, an international juror was added to the mix, further expanding the profile of the Sobey Art Award. “Part of my role,” says Drouin-Brisebois, “is creating greater international visibility for Canadian artists. I see the function of the international juror as that of a spokesperson who can bring a different kind of visibility to the prize.”

The 2016 jury includes international juror Nicolaus Schafhausen, and regional jurors Jonathan Middleton (West Coast and Yukon), Naomi Potter (Prairies and the North), Barbara Fischer (Ontario), Marie-Justine Snider (Quebec), and Pan Wendt (Atlantic).

Although there are a number of new names on this year’s longlist, several of the artists have been longlisted before, and several have also made the shortlist before — three of them in 2015. Indigenous artists from several different regions make up nearly a quarter of the list, and women artists slightly outnumber men.

“The Sobey Art Award is important,” says Drouin-Brisebois, “because it brings attention to the artists. From my own experience in 2015, I know that curators on the jury — including myself — got to know new artists through the longlist, and ended up working with some of them. The longlist is ultimately an exchange, and it does have an impact.”

The following artists made this year’s Sobey Art Award longlist:

Multidisciplinary artist Jordan Bennett (Atlantic) draws upon his observations of historical and popular culture, new media, traditional craft, political issues and his Mi’kmaq heritage to create video installations and ironic sculptural works such as Mi’kmaq Artifact (2010), consisting of a pair of beaded skateboard shoes.

Raymond Boisjoly, Makeshift and Makeshift I, 2010, inkjet prints and painter’s tape, 152.5 x 274 cm. Courtesy of the artist and the Catriona Jeffries Gallery

Raymond Boisjoly (West Coast and Yukon) is an Indigenous artist of Haida and Quebec descent, and was a Sobey Art Award finalist last year. He frequently uses digital technologies to create narrative works addressing the histories of oppressed peoples — often including text as in Makeshift and Makeshift I (2010).

The art practice of Olivia Boudreau (Quebec) spans film, video, performance and installation. Moody video installations such as Intérieur (2012) invite viewers to enter a trancelike state, inspiring reflections on time and perception.

Multidisciplinary artist Mark Clintberg (Prairies and the North) produces monumental statements on everything from the massive “canvas” of salvaged wood in Behind this lies my true desire for you (2012), to the huge metal letters perched atop an office building in Not over you (2014–2105). Using text, printmaking, glass, textiles, neon, drawing, public art, and installation, Clintberg explores spatial, temporal, and linguistic metaphors for interpersonal relationships. 

Edmonton-based painter Brenda Draney (Prairies and the North) hails from the Sawridge First Nation near Slave Lake, Alberta. Her work — such as the haunting Night Sky (for Sandi) (2012) — evokes isolation, and frequently references her hometown experiences and memories.

Brenda Draney, Night Sky (for Sandi), 2012, oil on canvas, 91.45 x 121.9 cm. Photo: Trident Photography

Using a large-format film camera, Regina-born Jessica Eaton (Quebec) has developed a complex experimental approach to image-making that delves into the very nature of photography. In works such as cfaal 306 (2013), she deconstructs the image into optical phenomena, exploring the materiality of film, and the language of light itself. 

Award-winning duo Eric Moschopedis and Mia Rushton, usually billed as Eric & Mia (Prairies and the North), combine playfulness with ethnographic observation to create community-specific interactive works. Many of their projects, including Hunter, Gatherer, Purveyor (2013–), take a lighthearted yet thought-provoking approach to political activism.

Mia Feuer (Prairies and the North) creates large-scale sculptural installations, such as The Bridge (2010), that suggest a post-natural landscape in which human intervention has altered or is rapidly changing the land — thereby encouraging viewers to engage with damaged, marginalized or threatened places.

The narrative-based work of Allison Hrabluik (West Coast and Yukon) uses video, sculpture, animation, drawing and text in a humorous way. Her work frequently references the human body in motion, as in The Splits (2015), a fifteen-minute video featuring an absurdist ritual of sound and movement.

In eerie installations made of salvaged material, such as Nest (2012), Kelly Jazvac (Ontario) probes the “permanence of disposability” and uses alternate aesthetics to explore the environmental and economic impact of consumption and desire.

Kelly Jazvac, Nest, 2012, mixed media installation (salvaged adhesive sign vinyl, thread, aluminium, kickstand, computer tower), 135 x 58 x 41 cm. Photo: Dave Kemp

Mi’kmaq performance and visual artist Ursula Johnson (Atlantic) creates site-specific interactive performances. In works such as L’nuwelti’k (2012–2015), which involved weaving basketry headgear on willing participants, she addresses topics such as environmental responsibility and Indigenous self-determination.

Multidisciplinary visual artist, musician and director Lisa Lipton (Atlantic) — shortlisted for the 2015 Sobey Art Award — explores the boundaries of performance and filmic production in site-specific installations. In works such as Blast Beats: Phase Two (2012) and trans DEATH: Chapter II— "The Impossible Blue Rose" (2013), Lipton takes on multiple roles as performer, writer, director, artist and technician.

Working primarily in large-scale drawing, as in Eunuch Tapestry 3 (2013), Zachari Logan (Prairies and the North) creates richly detailed works probe the intersections between masculinity, identity, memory and place — frequently through arresting self-portraits.

Annie MacDonell (Ontario) works across multiple media including photography, film, installation and sculpture. In series such as “The Picture Collection” (2011) and “Flatness, Light, Black and White” (2013) she remains grounded in the photographic impulse to frame and capture, while meditating on our shifting relationship to images, both moving and still.

In meditative works such as Anima (2012) and Time’s Gravity (2015), photographic and performance artist Meryl McMaster (Ontario) evokes journeys along paths of self-discovery, and explores how we construct a sense of self through lineage, history and culture, unravelling identity as something that is never complete, but always in process

The installation-based work of Jon Rafman (Quebec) — a finalist for the 2015 Sobey Art Award — examines the interface of digital culture and subjectivity. The artist's wry sense of humour is evident in works such as Zabludowicz Collection, London (2015) and You Are Standing in an Open Field (2015), which address the impact of technology on contemporary consciousness.

The practice of William Robinson (Atlantic) involves a variety of media, including site-specific installation, performance, video, musical composition, sculpture and printed matter. In works such as Brutalist Song I (2014) and Young Prayer (2011), he explores how sound and music can revive the social and historical narratives inherent in particular sites and built environments.

Jerry Ropson, As Spoken in Tongues, 2015, live drawing, ink and vinyl paint on wall, approximate dimensions: 38 x 152 m. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jerry Ropson

Jerry Ropson (Atlantic) focuses on site-specific installations and performance-based storytelling in works such as the monumental As spoken in tongues (2015). Using drawing and narrative he documents, in his own words, “an unyielding attachment to all things commonplace.”

Singapore-born Mark Soo (West Coast and Yukon) uses a variety of media — including photography, sound and video — to examine perception, representation and considerations of social space. Drawing upon diverse sources ranging from art history to popular and social histories, works such as the projection-based Cuttings (2012) encourage viewers to form their own associations with slightly off-kilter sound and visuals. 

Jeremy Shaw (West Coast and Yukon) explores altered states, along with cultural and scientific practices aimed at mapping transcendental perception. His recent work incorporates a wide range of experiences, from snake-handling religious traditions in Quickeners (2014) to vogue artist Leiomy Maldonado in Variation FQ (2013). 

Through sculpture, sound, installation and film, multidisciplinary artist Charles Stankievech (Ontario) casts a critical eye over the history, specificity and geopolitics of space. His art is a meditation on the impact of large structures on the landscape, for good or ill, as captured in works such as Monument as Ruin (2011–2014).

Krista Belle Stewart (West Coast and Yukon) uses mediation and storytelling to explore the interplay between personal and institutional histories, referencing her Indigenous heritage in installations and videos such as Seraphine, Seraphine (2015).

Derek Sullivan (Ontario) creates graphic works combining photography with installation, often including his own publications, as in Four Notable Booksellers (2013). Exploring the legacy of late Modernist art history and design, he intermixes art historical and broader cultural references in his artist books, drawings, sculptures and ephemeral installations. 

Karen Tam (Quebec) bases her installations on her own research into cultural constructs and imagined environments. In works such as Pagoda Pads: Kitschy Kitchen Mao (2008–2010) and Tchang Tchou Karaoke Lounge (2008), she reinvents spaces such as Chinese restaurants, opium dens, curio shops, karaoke lounges and other sites of cultural encounters.

Hajra Waheed, The Cyphers 1–18, 2016, mixed media installation (found objects, cut photograph, Xylene transfer, glass, ink, printed Mylar and archival tape on paper), 28 x 43 cm each, Installation View at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Colin Davison

The work of Hajra Waheed (Quebec) uses interactive installations, collage, video, sound and sculpture to build complex narrative structures designed to speak for those who have become lost in the midst of rapid development or political strife. In works such as The Cyphers 1–18 (2016), she explores issues related to power, surveillance, cultural distortion and the alienation of displaced persons. 

This prestigious prize has helped to make many artists household names, and curators both at home and abroad look to its longlist for the best and brightest in contemporary Canadian art. “The Sobey Art Award enables us to become better aware of the rich and diversified Canadian visual arts scene,” says Drouin-Brisebois, “and to showcase the talent of emerging and established artists.”

From the longlist, a final shortlist of five artists will be announced on June 1. Work by the shortlisted artists will be displayed at the National Gallery from October 6, 2016 to January 5, 2017. The winner of the 2016 Sobey Art Award will be announced on November 1, 2016.  

For more on the Award, this year’s jurors, and extended profiles for each of the artists, please visit the Sobey Art Award website at

About the Author