The New Masters: conversations with the 2019 Sobey Art Award winner and finalists
Stephanie Comilang, Kablusiak, Anne Low, D'Arcy Wilson and Nicolas Grenier speak with IDEAS
* Originally published on March 5 and 6, 2020.
The annual Sobey Art Award is Canada's most prestigious prize for contemporary artists. Established in 2002, the award honours Canadian artists 40 years of age or under, who have exhibited their work in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated.
Past winners include some of the country's most celebrated talents: Brian Jungen, the late Annie Pootoogook, David Altmejd and 2018 winner, Kapwani Kiwanga.
The 2019 award had four other finalists: Nicolas Grenier, Kablusiak, Anne Low and D'Arcy Wilson. Each received $25,000.
The other longlisted artists received $2,000. In addition to monetary awards, three artists from the longlist were selected by the jury to take part in the Sobey Art Award Residencies Program.
The 2019 winner and remaining four finalists sat down with IDEAS producer Mary Lynk to discuss their work.
Filmmaker and winner of the 2019 Sobey Art Award Stephanie Comilang calls her films "science fiction documentaries." The video and installation artist says the term evokes a clear picture of two opposing concepts.
"I'm interested in real-life stories and being told these stories by the people themselves," she said. "That is usually a starting point for me: Listening to a truth that is theirs and then shifting the narrative to create a new one."
Comilang says she often starts her art with a real-life situation and then creates other narratives on top of it.
"Some of the main themes that I explore are grounded in home usually — that's my starting point," she told the National Gallery of Canada. "I think about home as sort of a morpheus thing — this kind of fluid thing because movement is so kind of common in the way that we live our lives."
She brought two video installations of two different migrant narratives to the Sobey exhibition: Yesterday in the Years 1886 & 2017 and Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come To Me, Paradise). Both pieces contain the ghost/drone character, Paradise.
She says that she erases time in her work and that it makes it more interesting.
"I think coming from the past or the future and melding that with present time is something that I do," she said.
Comilang's films are often rooted in the process of dispersion and being diasporic. Her works show how migrants create their own space, with a focus on women.
"I've been interested in how the female figure, not the body, but maybe the female spirit moves through space, whether she be a migrant, a ghost, a drone or a shaman," she said.
Comilang has also had an interesting and unlikely past. She grew up in Toronto and her father was an Elvis-impersonator. She also observed how the Filipino diaspora defined her own space within the domestic and public realm.
"Home is this thing that can change. Coming from immigrant parents, it's something I think about a lot," she said. "Immigration, migration is very, very common, but I think it's something that really shapes how I view things — how I walk through the world."
D'Arcy Wilson's best known work looks back at colonial interactions with the natural world through her lens as a descendent of European settlers in Canada.
"I have inherited an understanding of nature that comes from that colonial umbrella, and I think in my work, I'm trying to unlearn it, to critique it but also to question where does my body fit in nature," she told the National Gallery of Canada.
"I'm part of a culture that has been very destructive and how can I then now enter into the natural world as separate from that past. My body is connected to that legacy."
Wilson says she processes her ideas through material production but that she is also drawn to labour-intensive practices.
"Time and labour are relatable to diverse audiences, and so the material practice becomes another way to connect with the viewer."
She brought a version of her ongoing project The Memorialist to the Sobey Art Award exhibition.
The pieces' persona is a pseudo-historian who covers the relatively obscure story of Andrew Downs' Zoological Gardens. As the proprietor of the zoo, Downs constructed animal habitats within a forest. It was an early zoo on the edge of Halifax.
"This persona is more of a reflection of myself, created in order to unfold the complexities of this time period," she said. "Andrew Downs referred to his zoological gardens as a memorial and he referred to himself as 'The Memorialist.' I've adopted the same name."
She adds that she explores themes of care and harm in a lot of her work.
"I've been drawn to narratives that look at instances in which people of my culture have tried to do the right thing or care for nature but maybe ended up doing more harm than good."
Cultural displacement is often a hard topic to approach, but Kablusiak chooses instead to touch on the issue with humour to lighten the intensity of the emotion and use art as a coping mechanism.
The multidisciplinary Inuvialuk artist and curator thinks about the history of inuit art — specifically carvings, through sculptures.
"I'd like to make art without having to deal with the crushing weight of cultural identity and what that's supposed to look like in today's world."
To determine which medium to use, Kablusiak relies on a concept.
"I have visual forms I often like to work with, as I feel they have set a precedent in my practice to represent certain things," they said.
"But when I have a concept I want to see through, that concept will drive what form it will take in the real world."
Kablusiak says the humour in the pieces come in subtle ways or in ways that could be relatable.
"I like to bank on the humour associated with absurdity. I choose it because humour is a marked way to deal with trauma, especially for Indigenous folks."
Kablusiak brought a number of pieces to the Sobey Art Award exhibition, including some new works.
As a sculpture artist, much of Anne Low's work is done at least in part by hand using a variety of methods, including weaving and textiles.
"I approach making sculpture through disciplines that are typically more associated with decorative art," she said.
"I'm interested in material forms of knowledge production and the virtuosity of intelligence that exists within material practices that sit outside of the realm of art."
Low's work is often done alone in her studio and it is typically of a domestic or human scale. She says material culture, specifically weaving, is a way for her to produce meaning.
"I'm really interested in the encyclopedic skill and virtuosity of cloth that was woven in Europe prior to industrialization when everything was spun, woven and dyed by hand," she told the National Gallery of Canada.
Her work is a process of translation and extrapolation that comes from her own research into material history.
"The work is always what is in front of the viewer, I'm not seeking to reference. I produce forms that are made now and as a result they can only be contemporary," she added.
Low brought a group of sculptures, some new, to the Sobey Art Award.
"The exhibition as a form is central to what I do," she said. "The works I have selected are being installed to produce meaning in relation to each other."
Nicolas Grenier says he mostly works with paintings, but also installations, videos, readings, performances, think tanks, participative workshops and new formats examining socio-economic dynamics.
He considers painting an "interesting medium" adding that it's old and traditional with inherent qualities that keep it grounded.
"It is the most primary visual language, pigments on a flat surface, and to me it acts as a constant reminder of the temporality and physicality of our bodies," he said.
"By contrast, the types of socio-political power dynamics that I often explore are rather intangible, diffused and abstract."
Whether his work is a painting or lecture, Grenier says it's always based on research. Recently, he was particularly involved with research on economic structures.
He adds that he can't ignore that paintings are "limited by the problematic economy in which they exist."
"I try to create an ecosystem in which both the artistic and the political dimensions of practice can respond to each other."
He said that he has been trying to recalibrate where he goes with his work.
"I've been trying to construct new structures that are experiments in and of themselves on how an economy could be run, on how a social group could form, on how collaboration could exist between scientists, artists and economists."
** This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.