Winners of the 2021 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts
For 21 years, the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts have recognized the careers of some of Canada’s most accomplished artists. Established by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General of Canada, these annual awards are pivotal in shining a light on the breadth of talent across the country – from fine craft production to visual and media arts to lifetime artistic achievements.
This year’s awards honour the eight laureates Lou Lynn, Germaine Arnaktauyok, Lori Blondeau, Dempsey Bob, Luc Courchesne, Bonnie Devine, Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Bryce Kanbara. “It is with great enthusiasm that I would like to acknowledge the inspiring work and exceptional contribution of these talented artists,” says Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. “We are recognizing a record number of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists this year. This pivotal moment is a testament to the strength of art – particularly Indigenous art – in this country.”
Lou Lynn’s practice is grounded in polar opposites – fragile glass is combined with durable metal, or other strong materials, to create unique sculptural forms. Using old tools, buttons, fasteners and industrial objects as her starting point, Lynn transforms them into objects, using glass techniques learned at the Pilchuck Glass School, near Seattle, from the 1980s onwards. “I’m very much married to my materiality, but it’s the search for form and ideas that I’m after,” she says. “ ‘The archaeology of daily life’ – I use that to describe what I’m doing out here. It’s examining the mundane … and my challenge as an artist is to create something harmonious.” Lynn is the recipient of the Saidye Bronfman Award, which celebrates excellence in the fine crafts.
Nunavummi artist Germaine Arnaktauyok draws upon the legends, traditions and ceremonies of her Inuit culture to create intricate prints, drawings and paintings. A visual artist for well over sixty years, she initially found inspiration in her father’s storytelling. “In my little mind, I was picturing things,” she says. “I can remember drawing on gum wrappers and any bits and pieces of paper I could find.” Her signature style is characterized by “squiggles” – tiny, curly lines that, when combined and viewed from a distance, create a clear and coherent whole.
Arnaktauyok’s work was twice selected by the Royal Canadian Mint to appear on special coins – first in 1999, on the reverse of a $2 coin issued in commemoration of Nunavut’s provincial inception, and again in 2000, on a $200 gold piece in the Celebrating Canadian Native Cultures and Traditions Series.
Cree/Saulteaux/Métis artist Lori Blondeau tells the traditional stories of Indigenous peoples through her performance- and photography-based works. Born to activist parents, she was influenced early on by their work, as well as their art-making and storytelling. “That’s something that the colonizer couldn’t take away from us,” she says, “our stories.” In 1995, Blondeau co-founded Tribe, an artist-run centre for contemporary Indigenous artists, and in 2007, worked alongside Kanien'kehà:ka (Mohawk) filmmaker and visual artist Shelley Niro at the Venice Biennale.
Blondeau is particularly interested in the contemporary misrepresentations of Indigenous women. “Blondeau frequently adopts personae that confront the hegemonic, violent images of Indigenous women that proliferate throughout settler culture,” comments curator and nominator Nasrin Himada. “Her artwork, activism, curatorial work and pedagogy are essential, and her transformative work continues to be groundbreaking and relevant.”
Master carver Dempsey Bob is recognized as a pioneer in the development of Northwest Coast art. His work marries the traditional styles of Tahltan and Tlingit sculptural art with a contemporary spin unique to the artist himself. Working primarily in alder, cedar and bronze, Bob – whose great-grandfather was also a carver – derives his inspiration and work ethic from nature and the art of his ancestors. “Talent is cheap – it’s the dedication that’s costly and it’s the hard work,” he says. “As an artist, you’ve got to live up to your potential, or try to. … I want to do the best work I can do, because I realize in the end, that’s all that matters.” Bob is both an Officer of the Order of Canada (2013) and a founding member of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, where he shares his knowledge and passion for sculpting with the next generation of artists.
For some fifty years, Luc Courchesne’s practice has evolved alongside the development of technology. His work consists of interactive portraits, hypermedia and video installations that push the boundaries of digital art and utilize computer technology and virtual reality in innovative new ways. “By inventing a device that allows for visual immersion, [Courchesne] was able to include panascopic images in his installations, an innovation that transforms viewers of the work into visitors, actors and even inhabitants of his experiential contrivances,” says Pierre-François Ouellette, director of Ouellette art contemporain.
Based in Montreal, Courchesne is a founding member of the Société des arts technologiques, an honorary professor at the Université de Montréal and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He continues to be moved by the possibilities of technology and its ability to augment our experiences as viewers of his work.
Although she studied at OCAD and York Universities, Bonnie Devine credits her grandparents for her greatest lessons as a visual artist. “When I was growing up, I watched my grandparents who were trappers. I saw the way that they handled materials – wood, reeds, fur – they were constantly modifying it in order to give it another use,” she says. Since then, Devine – who is an off-reserve member of Serpent River First Nation, Genaabaajing – has built a practice rooted in the history of the land and materials that surround her. “We are always striving to make meaning. We are always striving to convey meaning, but what I see my role as, in art practice, is really about establishing a relationship with my materials, and then allowing them to say what they want to say.”
Devine’s installations, videos and writings are inspired by Anishinaabe culture and her deep ties to the North. Currently residing in Toronto, she is an Associate Professor Emerita and the Founding Chair of the Indigenous Visual Culture program at OCAD University.
Interdisciplinary artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle roots her practice in nêhiyawin, or Cree, worldview. Her audio, video, virtual reality, performance and song-based works draw upon her Cree/Métis and German/Polish ancestry, as well as her family ties in Papaschase First Nation and Kikino Métis Settlement in Alberta, all the while injecting a contemporary twist. A PhD candidate at SMARTlab/University College in Dublin, Ireland, L’Hirondelle is also CEO of the Indigenous music label Miyoh Music Inc.
On her work, nominators France Trépanier, Julie Nagam and the O’kinādās Collective (Peter Morin, Ayumi Goto and Stephen Foster) commented: “In current times of political, cultural and environmental upheaval, the world is in desperate need of artists like Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who can help us to create new social formations and to bridge knowledges, communities and histories … [She] teaches those around her to recognize and creatively transgress established boundaries so that everyone is invited, every being is honoured and every place can shelter.”
Awarded the 2021 Outstanding Contribution Award and nominated by Shelley Niro, artist and curator Bryce Kanbara is the founding member and first administrator of Hamilton Artist Inc., an organization that became the inaugural winner of the National Gallery of Canada’s Lacey Prize, recognizing artist-run centres in Canada. He is also the proprietor and curator of the you me gallery in Hamilton. His contribution to the vibrancy of Hamilton’s art scene is notable. In his practice, he builds bridges between artists and communities by supporting and amplifying their work. “A simple but very crucial part of doing the work that we do is getting to know one another. Community building and community development is an important aspect of everything I do,” he says. “I have a real empathy for artists because I know what it’s like to create work and to do it in isolation, and without a lot of public response. It’s important to help them.”
In the absence of an exhibition this year, the work of all eight laureates can be explored in detail, through text and individual video portraits, on the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts site of the Canada Council for the Arts.
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