By Deb A.
Ursula Johnson, also known as Little Bear, is this year's winner of Canada's Sobey Art Award.
The prestigious prize recognises the country's most promising contemporary artists under the age of 40. This year's shortlist included a record number of women (four of five of the artists are female) and two Indigenous artists from the five regions.
Ursula Johnson, representing the Atlantic region, is a performance and installation artist of Mi'kmaw First Nation ancestry. She descends from a long line of artists, including Caroline Gould, her great-grandmother and master basket weaver. Often incorporating basketry traditions into her art, Ms. Johnson explores identity, community, colonialism, and her Indigenous heritage: she wove baskets around herself for her Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon) series (2003-2015), was symbolically scalped in Elmiet (He/She Goes Home) (2010) to draw attention to Nova Scotia's history of scalping, and collaborated with Soto Pow Wow dancer Bert Milberg for Hot Looking (2014), a commentary on the appropriation of indigenous culture.
"I will now have the tremendous opportunity to work on a larger scale and expand the reach of my work to a broader community while exploring more diversity in materials and content as well as beginning to create a network of collaborators internationally!" Ms. Johnson said of her win.
Her desire to work with and learn from others was just part of the reason Ursula Johnson received the $50,000 CDN award; the selection committee noted that she "was singled out for her strong voice, her generosity and collaborative spirit. Through her work, she redefines traditional materials and re-imagines colonized histories."
Ursula Johnson is a talented, insightful artist with a strong sense of community, history and social justice--in other words, a fitting representative for the nation's contemporary art scene in a year in which Canada's colonial history has come under the microscope and gender and identity politics dominate public discourse.
The shortlisted artists, Raymond Boisjoly (West Coast & Yukon), Divya Mehra (Prairies & North), Bridget Moser (Ontario), and Jacynthe Carrier (Quebec), will each receive $10,000 CDN. All five artists' works are on display at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto until December 9th.
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