Ursula Johnson: A new rock star in the art world

A profile of 2017 Sobey Art Award winner, Ursula Johnson. There’s a lot of buzz around this young artist - a brilliant, dynamic, articulate and delightful Mi’kmaq artist from Eskasoni First Nation, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her art is stunning and thought-provoking. She is a multidisciplinary artist. Her work includes sculpture, printmaking, performance and non-traditional basket weaving.
Ursula Johnson, winner of the 2017 Sobey Art Award.

There's a lot of buzz around the 2017 Sobey Art Award winner Ursula Johnson — a brilliant, dynamic, articulate and delightful Mi'kmaq artist from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her art is stunning and thought-provoking. She is a multidisciplinary artist. Her work includes sculpture, printmaking, performance and non-traditional basket weaving. **This episode originally aired January 23, 2018.

Ursula Johnson describes her installation at the 2017 Sobey Art Award Exhibit

"When they walk into my exhibition, what they'll see is a large structure. It's a very large fence with this (somewhat)... terrifying undulate gate at the entry of the fence. They'll also see there's wallpaper, that's made from vinyl…(and) covers three of the main walls in this space. And there's a programmed LED lighting that runs for a 40-minute span emulating sunrise to sunset…"

"Moose Fence", Ursula Johnson.

"These materials in (Moose Fence) are directly mimicking or echoing what you would see when you travel on the Trans-Canada Highway through Eastern Canada... It's often this wired, wildlife fence with these giant, undulate gates. And so I want people to think about this idea of the division of space and the negotiation of space between us as humans and nature. But also maybe think about this idea of safety. What is safety? And why do we need to think of nature as imposing dangers?

With dreamcatchers and wolves, this artist is calling out the commodification of Indigenous culture

5 years ago
Duration 3:35
Recent Sobey Award-winning artist Ursula Johnson makes work that's funny, compelling and cuts to the heart of cultural commodification.

The Jury Statement on why they chose Ursula Johnson to be the winner of the 2017 Sobey Art Award

"Ursula Johnson was singled out for her strong voice, her generosity and collaborative spirit. Through her work she redefines traditional materials, and re-imagines colonized histories. " 

"I'm going to do something totally different and break down the walls"

"I think I've known throughout my entire life. I had the luxury of growing up in a family, in a community, that really praised the artists. My family were artists and basket makers. I constantly had artists all around me. We also had people that weren't also just artists, but a lot of thinkers… scholars and academics.

In the house that I spent the very early formative years of my life [in], with my great grandparents, my great-grandfather spoke English, Mi'kmaq, French and Gaelic.

Right to left: Caroline Gould - Mi'kmaq Elder, internationally renowned basket-maker and Ursula Johnson's great-grandmother; Ursula Johnson basket weaving.

So we had languages, so rich, in our house and people coming constantly in and out. Ph.D. students, people that were anthropologists and sociologists — pretty much every type of "ologist" came through those doors. 

The conversations that we had… at the dinner table in that house — there was never any separation between art and culture. It was always art, culture, politics and education. And then even often times economics would come into the conversation, because it was all inter-related.

I think growing up with those conversations and the house — extremely philosophical conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner — it became a part of my environment... I was very encouraged by my family to go into theatre and to continue to write. I started painting and then I...decided to go to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD)."

"I was this punk rock art student. It's like: 'I'm going to do something totally different and break down the walls, and I'm gonna weave a basket around myself.' And my great-grandmother looks at me and she says, 'Are you looking for permission from me?' And I was, like: 'Well, you know, you're kind of the queen of Mi'kmaq basketry. I don't want to break any protocol rules.' And she said, 'Well, I suppose. It's going to be a very huge basket… if you're going to be inside … I don't know how you're going to make it from the inside, but if you want to do that, then you have my blessing, if that's what you're looking for...'"

The Sobey Art Award

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 work in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated. In addition to the $50,000 prize awarded to the winner of the Sobey Art Award, each of the four short-listed artists are awarded $10,000, and $1,000 is awarded to each of the remaining long-listed artists.

**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?