As It Happens

Meet Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw artist Ursula Johnson, winner of the 2017 Sobey Art Award

Mi'kmaw artist Ursula Johnson is the first Atlantic Canadian artist to win the highly coveted Sobey Art Award.
Ursula Johnson is the winner of the 2017 Sobey Art Award. (Justin Wonnacott/Courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery)
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She's been described as one of the country's most exciting young artists.

And on Wednesday, Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw artist Ursula Johnson proved that, by winning Canada's biggest contemporary art prize: the Sobey Art Award.

She earned that honour by using performance art and traditional practices like weaving. Much of her work focuses on colonialism and her Indigenous heritage.

Ursula spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about her practice and what it means to win the coveted $50,000 award. Here is part of their conversation.

Ursula, congratulations on the award. What does it mean to you?

It essentially gives me a lot of exposure on a national and also an international level. The prize money also means that I'll be able to explore different materials to work with that may not have been financially available. 

It also means that I'm able to broaden my reach on more of an international level and learning to work with different artists and learning about their practices and potentially entering into collaborative relationships with them. 
Johnson says she's inspired by her great-grandmother. (Rita Taylor/Banff Centre for the Arts)

I understand the ceremony itself was particularly emotional for you and that you found comfort or inspiration from an ash tree. Can you share that with us?

It was just in the beginning of the night as people were starting to spill into this giant outdoor tent. I was feeling really anxious. I felt like I just needed to run away for a moment.

So I kind of ducked down a back alley and I found a stand of ash trees. It was quite a grounding, emotional space for me because my family being basket-makers that used ash trees, it was kind of like almost like a little piece of home that was brought to me.

Wednesday would have been my great-grandmother's 98th birthday as well.

You mention your great-grandmother Caroline Gould. She's a master basket weaver and a lot of your art involves basket weaving. Tell me about what you've learned from her and how you use those traditional arts that you've studied with her and kind of meld that with a more contemporary, boundary-pushing art?

My great-grandmother, who was kind of considered to be the sort of Queen of Mi'kmaq basketry, she was able to explore new ways of working and really pushing boundaries in her own right, and doing different types of baskets than her mother would have been doing, for instance. 
Awije'jk by Ursula Johnson, black ash and sweetgrass weaving. (Wendy McElmon)

I had the amazing opportunity to grow up with her very present in my life. When I started exploring and researching our family traditions and Mi'kmaq basketry I realized that it brought me to all of these different intersections that I was studying at university at the time.

You know, looking at different theories and art histories and how our own First Nations culture, even though art has been such a huge part of our practice for thousands of years, we're still in this place where Indigenous art history is not a part of that core curriculum or the conversations within these institutions. It was something that her and I were able to talk about before she passed away. 

One of the pieces that you have is both a creation of physical art and also a performance piece. It's Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon). Tell us what you're doing in this performance.

The very first time I did it I was still an art student and it was kind of like this big avant-garde movement — Oh! I'm going to weave a giant basket around myself and it's going to be so cutting edge — you know, coming from this really enthusiastic art student perspective. Then I realize, I'm like, maybe that's a faux-pas or maybe I'm not allowed to do that.

So I went to my great-grandmother and I asked her permission. I was like, "Is it OK if I try to weave a basket around myself?"

She just laughed hysterically and she said, "You mean you want to be inside of this basket that you're making?"

I said, "Yeah, I want to make it because I feel like maybe I'll learn something from it."

She just laughed and said, "Well, that's going to be quite the huge basket but if you want to make it, sure."

She said, "If you're looking for my blessing, you have it. I don't really care what you're doing as long as you're weaving."

And so that project as an art student really gave me a great life lesson. 

You're interested in politics and I'm wondering how the political intersects with the creation of your art?

While I was studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, I was also working with the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax. That gave me an opportunity to work alongside with the National Association of Friendship Centres and also take a great part in the Department of Canadian Heritage. We put together, basically like an embassy of young people from across the country, and we took part in the Permanent Forum of the United Nations in New York City.

We had a very active role in creating the first international Indigenous Youth Caucus for the United Nations. It was something that I was very, very passionate about and I still am passionate about.

I just felt at a certain period in my life that I wanted to focus more on art production and cultural and community-based education, on a bit more of a grassroots level, as opposed to pursuing a career that would eventually take me into Parliament.

At some way and point and time I would be able to take that drive and that knowledge and all of that mentorship that I was able to receive while I was so young and to be able to translate it into my artistic practice.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Ursula Johnson.

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