The New Masters: The 2018 Sobey Art Award

The painter Paul Gauguin once said: "Art is either revolution or plagiarism." Five contemporary Canadian artists live up to the first comparison in that quote, or at least, they fiercely stir the pot. They are the finalists and winner of the 2018 Sobey Art Award. Their work is smart, insightful and full of beauty. In this series, meet Jon Rafman, Joi T. Arcand, Jordan Bennett, Jeneen Frei Njootli and Kapwani Kiwanga.
The finalists for the 2018 Sobey Art Award are, from left, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Jordan Bennett, Joi T. Arcand, Kapwani Kiwanga and Jon Rafman. The annual $100K prize celebrates contemporary artists 40 years of age and under. (National Gallery of Canada/Sobey Art Foundation)

The Sobey Art Award, created in 2002, is Canada's preeminent award for contemporary Canadian art. It's a celebration of the next big thing in the art world.

The annual prize is given to an artist 40 years of age, or under, who has exhibited in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated. 

In addition to the $100,000 prize awarded to the winner of the Sobey Art Award, each of the four shortlisted artists are awarded $25,000. And $2,000 is awarded to each of the remaining twenty longlisted artists. As well, three nominees from the longlist will take part in international art residencies funded by the Sobey Art Foundation and the Donald R. Foundation.

Over two episodes, IDEAS producer Mary Lynk meets the five regional finalists. From West Coast and the Yukon: Jeneen Frei Njootli. Prairies and the North: Joi T. Arcand. Ontario: Kapwani Kiwanga. Quebec: Jon Rafman. Atlantic: Jordan Bennett. The programs are produced in partnership with The National Gallery of Canada. The 2-part series will air January 29 & February 5, 2019.  

The winner of the 2018 Sobey Art Award is: Kapwani Kiwanga . 

An excerpt from the Sobey Art Gala, where the 2017 winner Ursula Johnson announces the 2018 recipient Kapwani Kiwanga. 6:14

The New Masters, Part 1 

Mary Lynk talks with artists Jordan Bennett, representing the Atlantic and Jon Rafman, representing Quebec in part 1 of The New Masters.

Mary Lynk in conversation with the 2018 Sobey Art Award finalists Jordan Bennett and Jon Rafman. 53:59

Jordan Bennett

My practice utilizes painting, sculpture, video, installation and sound to explore land, language, familial histories and challenging colonial perceptions of indigenous histories, stereotypes and presence with a focus on exploring Mi'kmaq and Beothuk visual culture of Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland).    

Jordan Bennett's wide-ranging work includes brightly coloured and vivid paintings, some influenced by Mi'kmaq porcupine quillwork and a large, looming photographic piece that critiques the government's controversial Indian Status card. 

His installation at the Sobey Art Award exhibit at the NGC is a powerful, evocative piece that begins with a fish shack abutted against a gallery one. Through the shack, you can enter another room – a space that's been transformed into a world of big sky, ice and snow.

This installation been shown widely, including at the Venice Biennale, transporting audiences to the 31 year-old Mi'kmaq artist's home of Stephenville Crossing Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland).

Ice Fishing, 2014-2018 | sculpture, video, audio, salt-beef buckets, fishing rods, 3D animations on iPad, variable dimensions. Produced under the NFB/imagineNATIVE Digital Project Prize. (Dru Kennedy)

Jon Rafman

As the Internet became a ubiquitous part of daily existence, I shared in the excitement of these new communities and was excited to explore the newly forming virtual worlds. Sometimes I see myself as a member of the community, but in many cases I approach the subcultures as if I were a passing explorer or an amateur anthropologist.

Jon Rafman is known as the godfather of post-internet artists, a somewhat ironic title seeing that he is only 37. But the artist, filmmaker and essayist, has been at the forefront of digital artists exploring the increasingly complex and intertwined relationship between technology and humans.

At the beginning, the self-described flaneur, was intrigued by the potential offered by the internet, including Second Life and Google Street View. But as the utopian promises have largely been negated, Jon's work now ventures into the darker implications of the all-consuming web.

Dream Journal 2016–2017 | installation view at Sprueth Magers, Berlin, 2017 | video with sculptural seating, variable dimensions. (National Gallery of Canada)

The New Masters, Part 2

Part 2 of The New Masters airs on February 5. Mary Lynk talks to finalists Jeneen Frei Njootli (West Coast & Yukon), Joi T. Arcand (Prairies and the North) and winner Kapwani Kiwanga (Ontario).

Producer Mary Lynk in conversation with Sobey Art Award finalists Jeneen Frei Njootli (West Coast & Yukon), Joi T. Arcand (Prairies and the North) and winner Kapwani Kiwanga (Ontario). 53:59

Joi T. Arcand

As a second language learner of Cree, there is so much to work through in terms of shame, anger and trauma due to the violent interruption colonization had on our languages.

Joi T. Arcand began her art career focusing on photography, and has expanded her mediums which include sculpture, bead work and jewellery.

Joi is from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory. Part of her art explores her own struggles to learn her community's language of Plains Cree, as a way "to bring awareness to the precarious state of many Indigenous languages."

An early series, Here on Future Earth, featured photographs of business and government buildings in western Canada, such as a pawn shop or a town hall. Joi then digitally altered the photographs so that the storefront signs went from English words to Cree syllabics. It's a deceptively simple, yet brilliant and powerful way to express her belief that language is culture.

Northern Pawn, South Vietnam, from the series Here On Future Earth, 2009/15| Inkjet print, 50.8 × 66 cm | Collection of the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

Jeneen Frei Njootli

As Indigenous peoples, we are tied up in the spectacle of history, not only the Americas, but globally.

Jeneen Frei Njootli is an interdisciplinary artist known primarily for her work with sound and textiles, performance and fashion.

She is a member of the self-governing Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon. Jeneen's work focuses on cultural teachings, belongings, skills, labour and land.

She has explored the difficult relationship between cultural institutions such as museums on the one hand, and Indigenous people on the other. There is also a poetic tenderness to much of her work, including the piece shown at the Sobey Art Award exhibit: I can't make you those mitts because there is a hole in my heart and my hand hurts.

It includes art made from a caribou hide given to her by her brother, which in part reflects loss and threats to Indigenous people and their culture.

White Swan, 2013 | digital print with archival ink on archival Somerset paper, 17 × 11 cm. (Courtesy of the artist, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Collection)

Kapwani Kiwanga

Those cracks which allow things to grow out of them are interesting to me.

Kapwani Kiwanga's work is recognized and celebrated both nationally and internationally. Not only did she win the 2018 Sobey Art Award, but a few months earlier, she also picked up the inaugural Frieze Artist Award in New York.  

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Kapwani now resides in Paris with her husband and young children. She began in the world of academia, studying anthropology and comparative religion. But Kapwani was drawn to freedom of art, and her mediums include sculpture, installation pieces, photography, video and performance.

Her work is research-driven and its impact is visually arresting. Her inspirations are wide-ranging, from the poems of former Black Panther Assata Shakur, to a 1961 photograph of the United Nations Secretary General office, all of which led her down a path of creative historical connections.

The Sun Never Sets, 2017 | single-channel HD video | colour | 9 min | courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, South Africa. (photo credit: Victor Sguassero)


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