Lasting Legacy: the Winners of the 2019 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts
Canada's prestigious Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts is a life-time achievement award recognizing an artist’s career, body of work and contribution to the visual arts – including architecture and photography, the media arts and contemporary practices in this field. This year the award honours nine outstanding laureates: Stephen Andrews, Marlene Creates, COZIC (Yvon Cozic and Monic Brassard), Susan Edgerley, Ali Kazimi, Lee-Ann Martin, Andrew James Paterson and Jeff Thomas. “Throughout their outstanding careers, these artists have moved us, provoked us and stunned us,” comments Simon Brault, director of the Canada Council for the Arts. “Above all, they have triggered reflections within each of us that go far beyond words and images.” The CCA collaborates with several partners on administering the award and each year a selection of works by the winners is presented at the National Gallery of Canada.
“These are Canadian artists who have been working for up to five decades,” says Adam Welch, Associate Curator for Canadian Art, who together with Nicole Burisch, Assistant Curator for Contemporary Art, and Jasmine Inglis, Curatorial Assistant for Indigenous Art, has pulled the show together in a relatively tight timeframe following the announcement. “It makes for an intense curatorial experience, but a fun project to work on,” he says. “Just the sheer variety of styles, materials, techniques and approaches that these laureates are working with is reinforced by this exhibition.” Presenting works from the Gallery's collection with loans from the artists and other institutions, the exhibition includes seminal works such as COZIC’s Mammary Complex (1970), Ali Kazimi's Fair Play and Marlene Creates’ Sybilla Nitsman, Labrador 1988 from her series The Distance between Two Points Is Measured in Memories.
Toronto visual artist Stephen Andrews’ work frequently draws upon the global effects of AIDS, escalating warfare and global capitalism. Diagnosed HIV positive 30 years ago, Andrews says his work, comprising drawing, painting, animation, ceramics and choreography, is deeply informed by that diagnosis as well as the larger societal context. Regardless of the medium, he says the hand-made aspect of his work is always prominent “to represent both the message and the means by which it is delivered.”
The Quebec artistic duo, COZIC – Yvon Cozic and Monic Brassard – has been collaborating for 50 years to the point that they consider themselves to be one artistic entity, un artiste bicéphale. COZIC’s practice draws upon recycled materials, sculptures that invite public participation and creations embedded in nature. The two say they decided to collaborate beginning in the late 1960s because they wanted their creations to “question the ego-artistic”.
Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet from Portugal Cove in Newfoundland. She says her work turned a corner when she decided to step away from the studio and work outdoors. “Suddenly,” she says, “the whole world became my studio.” She lives and works on six acres of Boreal forest creating art that explores the intertwining relationships between people, the human experience, memory, language and the land.
Toronto filmmaker and media artist Ali Kazimi tackles complex issues of race, social justice, migration, history and memory. His recent work Random Acts of Legacy (2016), for example, uses 16mm home movies to illustrate a Chinese-American family’s experience with race and class. From 1984 to 1996, Kazimi shot a documentary on fellow Governor General’s Award-winner, Iroquois photographer Jeff Thomas. Kazimi says Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas was intended to “unravel the hidden history” of the land chosen as his home.
It was Kazimi's gift of five plastic Indigenous figures that inspired Jeff Thomas' long-term project Indians on Tour back in 2000. Thomas, a photo-based artist, writer and curator, creates work that examines his own history and identity while exploring Indigenous ways of knowing and communicating. Based in Ottawa, Thomas says he “always felt photography can be used to heal the Indigenous experience because we come from a colonial history of erasure.” His Indians on Tour series, a selection of which is featured in the exhibition, situates these plastic figures in rural landscapes and urban settings and challenges their stereotypical portrayal. These 'travelogues' are reflections and juxtapositions of history, memory and identity.
Interdisciplinary Toronto artist Andrew James Paterson works in film, video, live performance, painting, music and literature. He is a published author and editor and, while he notes that he will always be a writer, he says he also “likes the idea of language that is not intended to have a meaning, that is decorative for its own sake”. Paterson’s complex and sophisticated practice draws on philosophy, queer aesthetics and tensions between technologies and the human body. He has performed as a musician and actor which also informs his highly eclectic, diverse oeuvre.
The winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award, the highest distinction in Canadian fine craft artistry, is Quebec glass artist Susan Edgerly. “Glass for me is a poetic material,” she says. “When I work with glass, I feel like I am writing a story.” Edgerley is internationally renowned for her large scale and mixed media pieces. “Susan’s artistic creations explore the subtle and sensitive avenues of life,” says nominator Christian Poulin, director general of Espace VERRE. “They combine female sensibility, poetry, nature, vulnerability, time and ingenuity with technical excellence, originality, and a deep understanding of art and of her craft.”
Curator Lee-Ann Martin is the 2019 recipient of the Outstanding Contribution Award. A champion of Indigenous art, her career has included Head Curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Coordinator for the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples and Curator of Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art at the Canadian Museum of History, mounting the pivotal exhibition INDIGENA: Perspectives of Indigenous People on 500 Years. Last year, she curated the groundbreaking Resilience billboard exhibition which saw contemporary artworks by 50 Indigenous women displayed on billboards across Canada. The powerful nation-wide exhibition was a response to a call for action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.
“These laureates reflect the full mix of rich and diverse Canadian talent,” says Tara Lapointe, CCA's director of Outreach and Business Development. “To be able to honour nine recipients ... encompassing all forms of visual and media art, really depicts that range of a robust and dynamic visual arts sector in Canada.”
The exhibition The Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts 2019, organized by the National Gallery of Canada in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from March 28 to August 5, 2019. Consult the public program for a full listing of events. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.