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Kenneth Lum, Deanna Bowen among winners of $25K Governor General's art awards

Vancouver-bred contemporary artist Kenneth Lum, whose works have challenged notions of identity in galleries and public spaces across the globe, is among this year's winners of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

8 winners to receive $25K prize in Edmonton ceremony on July 3

Visual artist Kenneth Lum, whose works have challenged notions of identity in galleries and public spaces across the globe, is among this year's winners of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. (Paloma Lum/Canadian Press)

Vancouver-bred contemporary artist Kenneth Lum, whose works have challenged notions of identity in galleries and public spaces across the globe, is among this year's winners of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

The Canada Council for the Arts revealed the eight honourees Wednesday who will each receive a $25,000 prize for their contributions to Canadian creativity.

"Year after year, the winners have demonstrated how dynamic, exciting, and deeply relevant Canada's visual and media arts scene truly is," Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council, said in a statement.

Lum, the chair of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design in Philadelphia, won the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for his body of work spanning photography, performance art and public installations over three decades.

He was hailed as a "living national treasure'' in his citation for the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award.

His body of work "continues to truly reshape the imagination of people in Canada as an uncomfortable nation, fractured by historical trauma and made up of diverse peoples,'' the citation read.

From photography to performance art to public installations, Lum said his Canadian perspective has informed his three-decade-long career as he grapples with themes of how individuals navigate a complex world.

"Canadians are modest, by and large, in the context of our role in the world,'' Lum, 63, said by phone from Philadelphia. "I think it's a cliché in a way to say that we're mediators of the world, but it's also not untrue."

Lum said his impoverished upbringing has set him apart in an art scene dominated by upper-class creatives.

East Van Cross by Kenneth Lum in Vancouver on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Raised in East Vancouver by Chinese-Canadian parents, Lum said he always had an aptitude for the arts, but didn't consider it as a career when he enrolled in Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., to study chemistry.

"My mother worked in a sweatshop. We were evicted twice when I was a little kid," he said. "There's no way that context lends itself to, 'I think I'll be an artist."

That changed when Lum enrolled in art classes taught by Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, who unofficially inducted him into the "Vancouver School" of photo-conceptualism in the early 1980s.

Lum's early career was marked by a fixation on how pop culture fit into cloistered conceptions of art.

In his photo-text works, Lum often applied the motifs of commercial advertising to everyday images, such as his 1989 Portrait-Logo series that juxtaposed generic portraits of families or individuals against stylized lettering that evoked corporate logos.

As part of his ongoing Furniture Sculptures project, Lum curates ordinary household objects in a gallery setting.

He's brought his artistic vision into the public square with commissions that often confront the complications of how a city commemorates its history.

For example, Lum created a memorial to the Canadian war effort in Italy during the Second World War in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square that shows the town of Ortona in ruins with soldiers flanking four corners.

In 2010, Lum created a 57-foot monument that lights up his home neighbourhood at night with the words "East Van" arranged in a cross.

Over the years, Lum said he's seen East Vancouver change in ways he has mixed feelings about.

"There's many good things that have happened to the city, but at the same time ... a lot of bad things have also happened to the city in terms of this equilibrium between wealthy and poor," Lum said.

"My work has always been occupied with that content, and it's never gone away. In fact, in many ways, it's become more relevant."

The Governor General's Award adds to Lum's long list of accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Art Gallery of Ontario's Gershon Iskowitz Prize and being appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Interdisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen has created work in film, installations, performance, drawing, sculpture and photography. (CBC Arts)

Fellow lifetime laureates include Toronto's Deanna Bowen, Dana Claxton of Vancouver, Ruth Cuthand of Saskatoon, Jorge Lozano Lorza also of Toronto and Michael Fernandes of East Dover, N.S.

Claxton said she was elated to be nominated, let alone win. 

Claxton, who started photography at age 16, makes interdisciplinary works including film, video projections, and performance art. 

"Beauty is about celebrating oneself as well as one's culture, one's family, one's community," said Claxton, who is of Lakota descent. 

"It's really about bringing an Indigenous presence and sort of way of being and thinking onto the screen."

Fibre artist Anna Torma of Baie Verte, N.B., will receive the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts. 

Ruth Cuthand is an influential artist of Plains Cree, Scottish and Irish heritage whose practice has included printmaking, painting, drawing, photography and beadwork. (Ruth Cuthand)

Mississauga, Ont.-based cultural administrator Zainub Verjee won the Outstanding Contribution Award for her artistic practice and policy work.

An awards ceremony will be held in Edmonton on July 3, and the winners' works will be displayed at the Art Gallery of Alberta through Sept. 27.

With files from On The Coast

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