Arts·Year in Review

10 Canadian artists who helped make 2021 a more bearable existence

From Seth Rogen to Cadence Weapon to Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, these folks helped us find the light this year.

From Seth Rogen to Cadence Weapon to Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, these folks helped us find the light this year

Left: Seth Rogen showing off his rolling tray invention. Right: one of his vases. (Twitter/Instagram/@sethrogen)

Optimism wasn't exactly easy to come by in 2021 (for a basically endless number of reasons no one needs rehashed at this point). But there were many notable Canadians who helped us find some light from time to time. The team at CBC Arts decided that maybe a productive way to usher out the year would be to pay tribute to just a few of them. So we asked our staff and contributors: who were the Canadian artists that helped make 2021 a more bearable existence?

Seth Rogen

Some people have thrived during the pandemic, maximizing the idle hours of quarantine by overhauling their identities. It's given them more time to, say, re-invent themselves as crypto bros or bakers. Maybe they've just absorbed enough self-help podcasts to blow up their lives with intention — to get caught up in the "great resignation" or, I dunno, join Bumble. I blocked all those jerks on Instagram, so maybe they've technically had a more productive 21 months than Seth Rogen, a Canadian I've come to see as a G.D. inspiration insofar as time management is concerned. He is, by his own admission, juggling at least seven screen projects at one time while I waste half an hour pondering which can of soup to reheat. And on top of rebooting Darkwing Duck and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — the xennial dream, if ever one existed — he found the bandwidth to write a book and launch a podcast and get high in the front row of an Adele concert (see the above video). That's just 2021, and a sliver of it.

Compared to most of us, Rogen's always been busy, of course. (Did you, by chance, produce the screenplay you started writing in high school?) And 20 years of Hollywood success sure helps a guy make lemonade out of the catastrophic species event that is a global health and economic crisis. But I can't name another person — or at least another famous stranger — who plain loves making stuff quite as much, or who is quite as effective at expressing just how wholesome that is. Take his reputation as the world's foremost celebrity ceramicist, for example. He's been playing show-and-tell for a handful of years now on Instagram, and bless every blobby new vessel he shares — like the one he auctioned to benefit the Vancouver Art Gallery in June. Every post is simple: a photo of some (increasingly) impressive form plus a slight variation on the caption, "I made this vase." I double-tap because they're my favourite "digital resting points" on a purely esthetic level; puppy photos don't do it for me, but neon-glazed ashtrays apparently do. But it's also about more than that. I like to think they say something about the person sharing them, something to admire with the same fervour as anyone thirsting after his "Weed Daddy" GQ photoshoot.

In April, the New York Times profiled Rogen, and they talked with him about his passion for pottery — why he loves the immediacy of it, how it's creatively fulfilling. But my favourite bit — and the real takeaway here — is the closing scene, a picture of a guy who just loves creating. After making stuff all day — movies, TV, podcasts, whatever — he wraps work at 5 p.m. That's "when he likes to head his pottery studio — to clock off for the day and go make some more things." — Leah Collins, senior writer

Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs

Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs in Reservation Dogs. (F/X on Hulu)

As an actress, model, activist, and former competitive gymnast (seriously), it's safe to say that Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs can do it all. And this is the year that she did. I first saw this Kahnawà:ke Mohawk phenom in Rhymes for Young Ghouls directed by Jeff Barnaby in 2013 at TIFF — a breakout role that got her a CSA nomination. You may also recognize her from American Gods, playing two-spirited Sam Black Crow. This year, though, she collaborated with one of my favourite Indigenous creatives, Taika Waititi, to star in FX's Reservation Dogs, which, if you haven't seen it, is one of the freshest, funniest, culturally significant coming-of-age series to grace the small screen in a long time.

Watching Jacob's charming performance — conceived by an all-Indigenous team, and elevated by countless other notable Indigenous actors including Canadians D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Paulina Alexis, as well as a PERFECT performance from Dallas Goldtooth as Spirit — was beautiful. In the pilot, Spirit asks her co-star Bear, "What are you doing for your people?" In using her art as activism, Jacobs's answer to that question is clear. — Lucius Dechausay, senior producer

Joshua Whitehead

Joshua Whitehead. (Tenille Campbell)

Rather astonishingly, four of the five books on this year's Canada Reads short list were written by queer authors. And it was the aforementioned Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs who championed one of them all the way to the win: author Joshua Whitehead's transcendent and powerful debut novel Jonny Appleseed. Released in 2018, the book came to Canada Reads with a considerable set of laurels already attached to it: it won the Lambda Literary Award, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. But it was the exposure from Canada Reads that propelled it to the top of the country's best-seller lists, helping bring the two-spirit Indigiqueer experience to the forefront of Canadian literature like it never has before. This is quite something for a novel whose protagonist is a self-proclaimed "NDN glitter princess" who becomes a cybersex worker in order to make a living. And it was also surely quite something for the many people in this country who felt seen by it, perhaps for the first time in such a major way. — Peter Knegt, producer

Yasin Osman

Yasin Osman is the photographer behind “Dear Ayeeyo," an exhibit he describes as a love-letter to his grandmother, which opened Friday at the Daniels Spectrum auditorium as part of the Contact Photography Festival.
Yasin Osman is the photographer behind “Dear Ayeeyo," an exhibit he describes as a love-letter to his grandmother, which opened Friday at the Daniels Spectrum auditorium as part of the Contact Photography Festival. (CBC)

In 2015, photographer and cartoonist Yasin Osman launched Shoot for Peace, a photo mentorship program dedicated to combating a rise in gun violence in his home city of Toronto. By 2021, Shoot for Peace had expanded into a program that provided over 100 youth with cameras, photography training, and employment opportunities. In a city undergoing a vicious gentrification process, Osman's resolution to offer alternative options for young creatives sparked a new trajectory of community-based fixes to systemic failings.

This year, the artist took his own creative pursuits to new horizons when he became a cartoonist for The New Yorker and displayed his photography at Kuumba, an exhibition that is part of the Black Futures Month annual celebration at Harbourfront Centre. His photo exhibit, Dear Ayeeyo — a collection of portraiture of people in Somalia, originally exhibited through CONTACT Photo Festival — is set to tour internationally. Osman's blend of community care and creative versatility make him not only an artist to watch, but one who makes this world a bit more bearable. — Huda Hassan, writer

Cadence Weapon

Cadence Weapon's Parallel World is an album about, among other things, the Black Canadian history and experience, the internet, surveillance capitalism, and how all those things interact with each other. It's filled with dense, rapid-fire punchlines and production that leans electronic and ranges from 2004-style grime to house to intentionally abrasive industrial. But this isn't a review of Parallel World — there are tons of those, and I have nothing to add to them beyond, "You really need to listen to this album."

This is a story about the good guys winning. 

In addition to releasing an album, Cadence Weapon also started a Substack this year (who didn't?) where he talked about his first record deal in an early post. How when he was a breakout indie star and music blog darling in the mid-'00s, he "basically didn't make a dime" — a 360 record deal meant that all of his earnings, including the money he got for being named Edmonton's poet laureate in 2009, went to his label. How that almost led him to quit music entirely, and how when he decided not to, it meant rebuilding his career from scratch, negotiating his own deals, finding his own collaborators, and booking his own tours. This year, that all paid off for him. After being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize three previous times, Cadence Weapon finally won it for Parallel World. An artist who took the long road, the hard road, who almost quit, who came back and proved that DIY still works, won this country's top music prize this year. 

I don't want to make it sound like the narrative around Parallel World is more important than the music itself. This album is important. It tells important stories and it does it in a brisk 28 minutes. Cadence Weapon has a flow unlike any in Canadian rap music today; he paints with a different sonic palate than anyone else and has zero interest in following trends. He is, frankly, the kind of artist we could use more of in this country. But in a year where heels and jerks seemed to be thick on the ground, the story of a good guy making good art getting a hard-fought W feels like something we should all celebrate. — Chris Dart, producer

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. (Chickweed Arts/Jamie Griffiths)

Did you visit a ton of museums and galleries in 2021? I sure didn't. Indeed, 2021 was personal museum-going nadir, something I'll bet I have in common with art lovers across this country. But reading our Q&A with 2021 Sobey Art Award winner Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, I was immediately reminded of the whipsaw effect of turning a corner in a gallery and being confronted with a perspective-scrambling work of art. Oh how I've missed it. For her Sobey exhibition at the National Gallery, Williamson Bathory presents Nannupugut! (We killed a polar bear!) — a characteristically multi-layered piece that's at once deeply personal (she killed the bear to protect her family) and unavoidably political (is there a more potent symbol of clashing perspectives on protecting the environment?). I probably won't make it up to Ottawa before the Sobey show closes in February. But the image of National Gallery patrons encountering a dancing Williamson Bathory projected in full regalia on a stretched bear skin? Well, it brings back that old gallery feeling. — Andrew D'Cruz, managing editor

Bilal Baig

Before this fall, writer and performer Bilal Baig was primarily known within in the Toronto theatre world for acclaimed works like Acha Bacha. But when the series Sort Of premiered on both CBC and HBO Max in November, they became known not only as the co-creator and star of one of the year's best new TV shows (in Canada or elsewhere), but as a bellwether of change for a multitude of communities.

Sort Of stars Biag as nanny Sabi Mehboob, who is given a chance to move to Berlin in pursuit of something more than their clearly unsatisfying life. But after the mother of the children they nanny gets in a serious bike accident, Sabi decides to stay put in Toronto. Over the course of eight episodes, the series makes clear it is one of the year's best with its rich characters, complex authenticity and ability to make us laugh and cry in the same scene. What's more, it offered two huge representational firsts: Sabi was the first non-binary lead character ever on Canadian television, while Baig was the first queer, South Asian, Muslim actor to star in a Canadian primetime TV series. And this surely gave hope to so many of Sort Of's creative-minded viewers that they might be able to follow in those footsteps. — Peter Knegt, producer

Bridget Moser

Over the past year or so, I've gleefully watched the Instagram feed of Toronto-based video and performance artist Bridget Moser transform into a full-time compendium of cursed objects she's either made or found. These curios, like objet de vertu for the age of, include a knockoff luxury basketball in Tiffany Bluethis Crocs Croslite Guy who's both made from the garden clogs and wearing them, too; a biodegradable toothbrush bristled with human hairan action figure of a folding chairthis ungodly off-brand Garfield plushie; and perhaps Moser's masterpiece, an anatomical model of the human skeleton she's painstakingly flocked in rose-coloured fur. Each is an object whose need for its existence is suspect — and yet here it is. Who doesn't feel that way every now and again? (Should you be travelling to Omaha, Nebraska, anytime soon, a small selection of these marvels is on view now at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.)  — Chris Hampton, writer

Savannah Re

In a year filled with art from Scarborough, Savannah Re was certainly the borough's brightest rising star. Re's debut EP, Opia, which dropped at the end of 2020, is an intimate, vulnerable project that bears it all, and was thoughtfully crafted with producers Boi-1da and Yogi (her husband). The album snagged a Juno award, two Prism Prize nominations, and a co-sign from Timbaland. In the months since, Re has released a new single, "24 hours", became a headliner at Manifesto (Toronto's biggest music festival) and debuted as the face of the YouTubeBlack campaign. Watching Re's many glorious wins this year, like her endearing at-home Juno acceptance speech, gave us moments of glee. She's hinted at big things coming in the new year for her music career, and we can't wait. — Huda Hassan, writer

Elliot Page

In March 2021, Elliot Page became the first transgender man to ever be featured on the cover of TIME magazine. "I'm really excited to act, now that I'm fully who I am, in this body," Page said in the accompanying story — which, along with the cover, was photographed by Canadian trans photographer Wynne Neilly at Page's request. "No matter the challenges and difficult moments of this, nothing amounts to getting to feel how I feel now." And in a year marked with those challenges and difficult moments for trans people, abetted by troubling trends of anti-trans narratives in the media, Page's very public journey toward himself was a much-needed antidote of hope. It was genuinely pioneering for a celebrity of Page's stature to candidly discuss trans male identity and issues with Oprah Winfrey and document their physical transition on Instagram, and in the process, he surely made 2021 much more bearable for so many. — Peter Knegt, producer

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