What's a Sobey Art Award? Everything you need to know before the winner's revealed

Meet the nominees and discover why they're already making history. The winner will be announced Oct. 25 in Toronto.

Meet the nominees and discover why they're already making history

The shortlisted nominees for the 2017 Sobey Art Award. Clockwise from top left: Raymond Boisjoly, Divya Mehra, Bridget Moser, Ursula Johnson, Jacynthe Carrier. (Sobey Art Award)

It's the biggest prize for contemporary art in this country, and in just a matter of days, the winner will be revealed. The Sobey Art Award holds its annual gala Oct. 25 in Toronto.

OK, so what's a Sobey Art Award?

Simply put, it's a prize for visual artists. More specifically, though, the Sobey Art Award is about supporting young artists who hail from every region of the country.

And to make things fair — geographically speaking, at least — both the nominees and the jurors of the prize represent five designated zones. They rep the Atlantic, Quebec and Ontario, plus the double-barrelled western regions of the Prairies and the North and the West Coast and the Yukon.

Oh, and there's actually six jurors, even though there are five areas represented.

Since 2016, there's been an international member of the selection committee. This year's — Adam Budak — hails from the National Gallery in Prague, and the full panel of curators, gallery directors, etc. is chaired by Josée Drouin-Brisebois of the National Gallery of Canada.

Go back to that business about "supporting artists." What kind of support?

Support of the financial variety, for one thing. The prize is known for having one of the highest dollar values in Canada, and its purse has actually doubled since last year's edition.

The winner will receive $50,000 and the four shortlisted nominees will each be awarded $10,000. That's in addition to the $1,000 given to each of the young artists who made the longlist.

Young artists? How young are we talking?


To qualify, nominees have to be under 40.

The Turner Prize in the U.K. used to have a similar age requirement, capping their entry age at 50. That's one reason why the Sobey Art Award often gets compared to it, but the Brits ditched that particular rule earlier this year.

Who are this year's nominees?

Finally, we get to the fun part. They are Ursula Johnson, Jacynthe Carrier, Bridget Moser, Divya Mehra and Raymond Boisjoly.

And this crew is already making history. Four out of five nominees are women, and that's unprecedented for the Sobey. Since it launched 2002, you'd never find more than two women among the top nominees. And as for the winners circle, it's always been dominated by men, with less than a handful of notable exceptions, including Annie Pootoogook (2006), Raphaëlle de Groot (2012) and Nadia Myre (2014). On top of that, there's more than one Indigenous artist on the shortlist — another first for the Sobey.

These official bio videos from the Sobey team will help you get to know everyone on the shortlist, starting with...

Raymond Boisjoly

Region: West Coast and the Yukon

Homebase: Vancouver

His art: How do you define Indigenous art, and Indigenous artists, when you're seeing things in a colonial context? That notion — the idea of how we look at things — is something that Boisjoly explores in a variety of mediums, though he's perhaps best known for working in photography and text.

Boisjoly himself is of Quebecois and Haida heritage, and as he says in the video: "As an Indigenous person I don't necessarily feel as though I simply make Indigenous art — I make art about Indigenous art so it widens the frame to look at what our assumptions are about Indigenous people negotiating the field of artistic practice."

Divya Mehra


Region: The Prairies and the North

Homebase: Winnipeg/New York/Delhi

Her art: She could be working with anything — video, sculpture, text, neon. Whatever the medium, Mehra challenges ideas of power and privilege, burning through the serious business of "the long-term effects of colonization and institutional racism" with a scathing sense of humour.

Bridget Moser


Region: Ontario

Homebase: Toronto

Her art: As Moser says in the video: "My art takes a combination of different performative modes ranging from prop comedy or stand-up comedy, modern dance, experimental theatre — all these kinds of different ways of performing — and then combines them with text and sound, either that I've made myself or taken from different sources from pop culture or from conversations I overhear."

"You could say one of the themes that I explore is how difficult and confusing and maybe lonely life can be as we experience it. No matter who you are, there are little pieces, hopefully, that you can relate to in terms of what it is I'm talking about."

Jacynthe Carrier

Region: Quebec

Homebase: Quebec City

Her art: Through performance, video and photographs, Carrier's art explores the ties between people, but also our connection to the environment around us. 

As she says in the video: "I don't necessarily see myself as a photographer or someone whose practice centres around the image. First and foremost, I work with life. So for me, the camera is a tool."

"My primary medium is life. It's space. It's the body. It's movement. It's the relationship among all those things."

Ursula Johnson

Region: Atlantic

Homebase: Dartmouth, N.S.

Her art: An interdisciplinary artist, Johnson is best known for her work in performance and installation art, which often involves elements of her ancestry. (She's Mi'kmaw First Nation.)

"I'm often interested in topics of identity, not only Indigenous identity but also queer identity — but also looking at the ideas of stereotypes or stereotype perpetuation," she says in the video.

"While I was studying I was involved in politics and I felt like it was best to have the conversation as an artist in the community. Instead of creating a policy, it was trying to create change on the ground."

"A lot of people say that my art is a trick, or that I'm creating some type of illusion and I'm interested in engaging people to question what they think is truth or fact or history or theory." 

But where can I actually see their work?

If you're in Toronto, you're in luck! The Sobey puts together an exhibition of the shortlisted artists' work every year, and this time, the institution hosting it is Art Museum at the University of Toronto. The show is open to the public Oct. 24 to Dec. 9.

Or for a purely digital sampling of their artwork, there's plenty more info — plus images, of course — available on the Sobey's website.

Sobey Art Award exhibition. Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Oct. 24 through Dec. 9.


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