2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition


Consider Krystle Silverfox’s new creation at the National Gallery of Canada the complete story of the Yukon. Inspired by an aboriginal legend about the creation of the world, Copper and Concrete rests on a base the size of a microwave oven. But it contains a lot of wisdom about the overlapping histories of Yukon’s Aboriginal people and settlers.

The work is among the treasures on display at the National Gallery of Canada by the five finalists for this year’s Sobey Art Award. Typically, the artists in these exhibitions present older pieces because they are put up for pre-selection just a few weeks before the exhibition is scheduled.

But Silverfox, of Whitehorse, a finalist for the West Coast and Yukon, isn’t one to rest on his laurels. She decided to create a new work referencing, among other things, the Aboriginal creation legend, a red blanket of Hudson’s Bay, Potlatch ceremonies and copper deposits near her ancestral home in the First Selkirk Nation in the Yukon.

Copper and Concrete is like a little sister to All that glitters is not gold…, a much larger and more showy work that explores similar narratives. This work served as Silverfox’s 2019 Master’s Thesis in Interdisciplinary Studies at Simon Fraser University. Something of a signature piece for her, it’s also on display at the National Gallery until the Sobey exhibit ends on March 12.

All five finalists are BIPOC artists and all, in various ways, explore colonialism, ancestral roots and lived experience through a contemporary lens. Together they are redefining Canadian art, not as Indigenous, African or Asian artists, but simply as artists living here.

Divya Mehra, Beyond Colonialism, A Reinvention of Power: The Sun May Have Set on Your Empire OR Why Your Voice Doesn’t Matter: Portrait of an Unbalanced Yet Contemporary Diasporic India vis-à-vis colonial red, curry sauce yellow and heavenly green, carefully placed in these revived medieval forms: the challenges of entering a predominantly white space (can you get it in the shop gifts?) where all women and magic elephants can know about this work, here in your Winnipeg, among all my peers, desiring to be both seen and to see the loot, through this Jungle Vine camo, celebrate a legacy of loss through the occupation of these antiquated spaces2018-2022, PVC-coated fabric, acrylic paint, plastic and electrical components (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 2019 (48651); © Divya Mehra; photo courtesy NGC)

The finalist for the Prairies and the North is Divya Mehra from Winnipeg. His practice includes installation, photography, sculpture and text – and the second most famous piece of rebounding architecture in Canada. Most famous, of course, is the bouncy castle erected among the trucks of protesters in Ottawa last winter on Parliament Hill for children to play in while their parents pointed fingers at politicians and police. It has become a symbol of this anarchy, much as Mehra’s brightly colored Taj Mahal criticizes the commodification and debasement of Indian culture in Canada, a recurring theme in his work.

Mehra’s piece has intentionally gone by several different names over the years. Here is one of the shortest: Beyond colonialism, a reinvention of power: the sun may have set on your empire. The work, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2019, has toured extensively in Western Canada, but has had only brief appearances east of Winnipeg. This is his first exhibition at the National Gallery. You can’t help laughing when you see it. In comparison, the other works in the exhibition are extremely serious.

Tyshan Wright of Halifax is the finalist for the Atlantic provinces. He is best known for his work which explores the history of Jamaican Maroons, Africans who resisted slavery and lived free off the land. But they still suffered hardship, and in 1796 many were exiled by Britain to Halifax and then decamped for Sierra Leone. Wright recreates maroon ceremonial musical instruments banned in Halifax, using materials available in Nova Scotia rather than traditional materials from Jamaica. Thus, Jamaican and Nova Scotian histories are intertwined in his art.

The finalist from Ontario is Azza El Siddique. Born in Sudan, she creates elaborate installations that examine transformational processes using liquids, smells, metals and heat. His works look like laboratories, game sets and manufacturing factories. The large pieces are influenced by traditional Egyptian and Nubian culture.

The Sobey exhibit features El Siddique’s Measure of one, a meditative arrangement of steel, clay pots and water that creates an irrigation system that resembles a giant altar. In the installation, water flows at regular intervals over unfired clay vessels, changing or entirely disintegrating their shapes. The mixture of eroded clay and water joins a cyclical path of destruction and renewal, forming new forms.

Stanley February, the Quebec finalist, is of Haitian origin. He explores inequalities within society, particularly discrimination, using installation, photography, performance and other media. On display is a coin-sized fake graveyard installation, The end of a world. Rows of tombstones represent a changing art world as the institutional practices that favored white male artists become more inclusive. February’s installation could well serve as a symbol for this year’s Sobey competition.

The winner, who will receive $100,000, will be announced on November 16. The other finalists will each receive $25,000. The award was established in 2002 and was initially only awarded to artists aged 40 and under. Now all ages are eligible. Previous winners are Brian Jungen, David Altmejd, Annie Pootoogook and Michel de Broin. ■

The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from October 28, 2002 to March 12, 2023.

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