Sobey Art Award 2022: Stanley Février

Stanley Février, The End of a World (detail), 2017–22, plaster, wood, glass, electric candles, 2 metal votive candle stands, funerary wreath

Stanley Février, The End of a World (detail), 2017–22, plaster, wood, glass, electric candles, 2 metal votive candle stands, funerary wreath. Collection of the artist. © Stanley Février Photo: NGC

Stanley Février started his professional life as a social worker and dedicated himself to art full-time in 2012. But he has always been an artist.

Originally self-taught, his personal and collective experiences instilled in him the belief that we all have the power to effect change for ourselves and others. At age fifteen, neglected by his birth parents, he became close to his next-door neighbours, noticing how deeply they cared for their garden. After several months, he asked them to become his chosen family, and they accepted. Gradually, he began living in their home until he finally moved in completely. In 2006, when he was thirty, a deeply painful personal event compelled him again to take action. He went to the Côte-des-Neiges cemetery in Montreal with his camera and a carton of eggs. He chose a tombstone upon which he crushed the eggs, one at a time, with his bare right foot, and photographed the action as it unfolded. These repetitive gestures, which involved his body and a medium of capture had a purifying and transformative effect. As he writes in his master’s thesis, “Out of my shell, I am the new me, I became my own author, hatching from the image related to the egg and not that of God.” Février channelled suffering into a creative act to re-emerge liberated and convinced of art’s power as an agent of change. Furthermore, through this exercise he discovered a crucial alliance between performance and photography that would underpin the foundations of his artistic methodology.

Stanley Février, Installation view, 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, National Gallery of Canada

Stanley Février, Installation view, 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 28 October 2022 to 12 March 2023. Collection of the artist. © Stanley Février Photo: NGC

Interdisciplinary by nature, Février works across photo, sculpture, drawing, installation and video, often drawing from performances in which his own body serves as a vessel. With a deep sense of social engagement, he examines the unequal dynamics of power that traverse social, cultural and economic spheres, as well as the distress caused by the violence and anxiety of living in our contemporary world. He explores poverty, mental health, gun violence and disarmament, mass migration, police brutality, the conditions of the art world as well as that of artists, all underscored by his poignant and vulnerable phrase: “if I expose myself, it is with the hope that others will also reveal themselves.”

Stanley Février, Les vies possibles [Possible Lives], 2021. Video installation.

Stanley Février, Les vies possibles [Possible Lives], 2021. Video installation, dimensions variable. © Stanley Février. Installation view from the exhibition Menm Vye Tintin. Les vies possibles [Same Old Shit: Possible Lives], at the Musée d’art contemporain des Laurentides (MACLAU). Photo: MACLAU, Lucien Lisabelle

Possible Lives (2021) is his largest project of solo work to date and comprises an evolving ensemble of sculptural and media installations, 2D works and a variety of participatory elements that address the intense psychological and physical challenges faced by artists living in poverty and isolation. The starting point is a distress letter written in 1970 by French artist Christian Boltanski to gallerist José Pierre, in which he describes his desperate situation and fear that he cannot go on. In a performance/video (2017), Février is seen copying out Boltanski’s letter by hand, which he then sent to 41 Montreal gallerists from whom he received not a single response. His main question then became: “how do we express when we are in distress, and how do we deal with those who tell us they are in distress?”

In addition to a series of sculptural installations that feature bodies and body parts in white plaster and the white flags that have become central to Février’s formal and conceptual language, is a series of colourful, graphic, sculptural paintings that draw on the International Code of Signals (ICS). This set of codes is used primarily by seafaring vessels as a universal means of communication, in particular for distress calls, when language difficulties arise. Conceptually rich and formally seductive, these works engage with Pop art and Hard Edge painting, and call to mind the exclusionary tenets of high modernism in art, adding a further layer of critique to Février’s proposal. Another component of this project is the SOS Booth, installed in different locations where artists are known to live and work. This interactive element offers a place in which artists who have lived through and with anxiety and distress can record their stories in an effort to find solace, knowing that they may be listened to and heard. Through this project Février expresses an unwavering belief that art can create spaces in which we can ask for help and learn how to take care of each other.

Stanley Février, IT’S HAPPENING NOW, 2019, printed 2022,views of a performance at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Stanley Février, IT’S HAPPENING NOW, 2019, printed 2022, views of a performance at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photograph by Michaëlle Sergile and Mike Patten. Collection of the artist. © Stanley Février Photo: NGC

Février’s concern with the inequalities of the art world and its impact on marginalized artists – among them Indigenous artists and artists of colour – is manifested in brave performance works and expansive projects that involve the larger community. With reference to Fred Wilson’s 1992 performance, My Life as a Dog, Février’s work An Invisible Minority (2018) draws attention to the near-total absence of black artists, or so-called “diversity artists,” in the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM) and other museums, while the gallery security guards, who are mostly black and people of colour, also become invisible within these institutions. One component of this work consists of a filmed performance in which Février infiltrates the MACM alongside fellow artists Michaëlle Sergile and Aime Mbuyi who wander the galleries, posing as security guards. Clearly this infiltration went unnoticed by both the public and the museum staff. IT’S HAPPENING NOW (2019), another guerilla performance at MACM, challenged the institution to recognize overlooked Québécois artists. Wearing head-to-toe black body stockings, Février and several artist and curator friends dragged fifty years’ of the MACM’s annual reports shackled to their ankles into the museum building. They then proceeded to shred these documents while making a collective call for a new chapter in Quebec art history.

Linked with this art performance is Février’s extensive project, the Museum of the Art of Today / Department of the Invisible, which he began in 2018. This conceptual artwork consists of the creation of a museum that presents artworks that Février has acquired over the years, by artists he feels have gone unnoticed by the mainstream art world. Set up within an institution, this museum is a performance-based project/artwork in itself, and is activated on a daily basis in a continuous dialogue with both art world professionals and visitors. Taking on the role of Director and Chief Curator of this space, Février uses the museum as a medium through which to question the art system and its issues of unequal socio-cultural power.

In an ancient Sanskrit spiritual text known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the word “tapas” has multiple meanings, including “heat” and “to accept suffering.” Taken together, the purifying force of heat may release us from suffering, as it transforms pain into emancipation and rebirth. This deeply held wisdom, instilled by Stanley Février’s lived experience, is a guiding force in his practice. His concerns cohere through the body – both his and our own – which becomes a conduit through which we can courageously acknowledge distress and find liberation. By building empathy, we can transcend the “I.” This, he reminds us, is what art can do.


The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada,  from October 28, 2022 until March 12, 2023, with the winner announced at a gala ceremony on November 16, 2022. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 20232 published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2022. 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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