Arts

Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra is the winner of the 2022 Sobey Art Award

Worth $100,000, the Sobey is one of the most valuable prizes in Canadian contemporary art. Mehra's win was announced Wednesday night at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Her work on issues of repatriation isn't just timely — it's prompted actual change

Artist Divya Mehra raises a finger as she speaks, wearing a denim shirt and an inquisitive look on her face.
Worth $100,000, the Sobey Art Award is one of the most valuable prizes in Canadian contemporary art. Divya Mehra's win was announced Nov. 16, 2022, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (National Gallery of Canada)

Divya Mehra is the winner of the 2022 Sobey Art Award, a $100,000 prize considered to be one of the most prestigious accolades in Canadian contemporary art. 

The news was announced in Ottawa Wednesday evening at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), home to a special exhibition highlighting this year's top nominees. That cohort, which represents artists from five regions across the country, includes Krystle Siverfox (West Coast & Yukon), Azza El Siddique (Ontario), Stanley Février (Quebec) and Tyshan Wright (Atlantic) — each of whom receives $25,000 for making the short list.

Mehra, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, represents the Prairies and North region, and she was previously nominated for the Sobey Art Award in 2017 when the prize was restricted to Canadian artists under 40, an age requirement that was eliminated last year

"It's an honour to be recognized and celebrated for your work in this way," she told the NGC in an official statement. In that same announcement, Jonathan Shaugnessy, Chair of the 2022 Sobey Art Award jury, praised her work for being "resoundingly timely and sophisticated in addressing systems of cultural representation, production and authority."

Mehra has done more than simply engage with those ideas, however. Few artists, never mind Sobey winners, can claim to have ushered some kind of tangible, real-world change on the subject — and as part of Mehra's contribution to the Sobey exhibition at the NGC, she captures the story behind one such example.

In her exhibition at MacKenzie Art Gallery, Divya Mehra replaces a statue from the gallery's collection that was stolen from India with a bag of sand, inspired by Indiana Jones. (Supplied by MacKenzie Art Gallery)

In 2019, the artist was developing an exhibition for the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina when her research uncovered the provenance of a stone carving in the museum's collection. A statue of the Hindu goddess Annapurna, the object had originally belonged to a temple in Varanasi. (John MacKenzie, the museum's namesake, is said to have looted it while travelling there in 1913.) Thanks to Mehra's discovery, the Annapurna returned to India in 2021, and in response, she created a brand new work of art. Channelling Indiana Jones, she installed a bag of sand at the MacKenzie where the statue was previously stored. 

A photo of that piece appears in the Sobey Art Award exhibition alongside further work that calls for the repatriation of artifacts. One item, a note written on the back of a Lawren Harris postcard — a print she picked up at the NGC gift shop — is a letter to King Charles III, demanding the return of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to India. The jewel's been in the British Royal Family's stash since 1849, and it's rumoured to be coming out of storage for the upcoming coronation, perhaps worn by Queen Consort Camilla.

"Untethered to any specific medium, the impact of Mehra's practice extends beyond established constructs of art," said Shaughnessy, who is also the Director of Curatorial Initiatives at the NGC. "Her approach is defined by its sharp wit, disarmingly playful allure, and attentiveness to language and aesthetics. Her most recent explorations turn towards issues of repatriation, ownership, and modes of cultural consumption that fundamentally implicate both institutions and their publics."

The winner of the Sobey Art Award is determined by a jury of six curators: one international and five Canadian (who represent the same regions as the nominees). Founded in 2002, past winners have included Brian Jungen (2002), Annie Pootoogook (2006), Ursula Johnson (2017) and, most recently, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (2021).

The exhibition of 2022's shortlisted artists will continue at the NGC through March 12, 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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