The work of Ottawa’s Joi T. Arcand, among five finalists for the $100,000 Sobey Art Award, brings Cree language to the world.
In the 2000s, when Jeneen Frei Njootli was attending Canterbury High School, she would visit the National Gallery of Canada. On Tuesday, she got a sneak peak at the gallery’s auspicious new exhibition that includes three walls dedicated to her own groundbreaking work.
Frei Njootli, 29, is one of five finalists vying for the 2018 Sobey Art Award, which since 2002 has celebrated work by contemporary Canadian artists under 40. The gallery’s exhibition of works by Frei Njootli and her peers, who among them represent different regions of the country, opens Wednesday. On Nov. 14 at the gallery, the winner of the $100,000 award is to be announced. The four other finalists will each receive $25,000.
While Frei Njootli spent her teen years in Ottawa, she now lives in Vancouver and is from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in the northern Yukon. Representing the West Coast and Yukon, Frei Njootli is one of three Indigenous artists in the running for this year’s Sobey award, along with Joi T. Arcand, representing the Prairies and the North, and Atlantic Canada’s Jordan Bennett. The other finalists are Ontario’s Kapwani Kiwanga and Quebec’s Jon Rafman.
“For me, art is a way of presenting sets of politics, and a way of communicating the importance of Indigenous rights, including our right of self-determination,” Frei Njootli said.
Among the interdisciplinary artist’s contributions to the exhibition is a work titled “Work Sucked in Through Bared Teeth,” which consists of two massive steel panels that bear grease prints applied by Frei Njootli’s body, along with impressions of beadwork.
“I’m looking at problematic representations of Indigenous people through photography and history,” Frei Njootli said.
From 36-year-old finalist Arcand, who has lived in Ottawa for the past several years, are photos and installations that strikingly bring the written Cree language into the world. Four dreamy photos show scenes from Plains Cree territory in Saskatchewan, where Arcand grew up, but with the Cree syllabics digitally imposed where English words had been.
“I’m imagining what the world would look like if we promoted Indigenous languages the same way
we do English and French,” Arcand said. After making the photographic art, Arcand made installations of Cree text, which she says are more “private inner dialogues” having to do with her own relationship to her ancestral language, which she knows only imperfectly.
For me, art is a way of presenting sets of politics, and a way of communicating the importance of Indigenous rights ...
Bennett’s installation, Ice Fishing, means to immerse viewers in the activity that was central to his life in Stephenville Crossing, N.L. An ice-fishing shack that Bennett, 31, and his father built is effectively a portal into a room made over with fishing holes, lines that tug with biting fish, and a projection of a snowy vista intermittently visited by caribou and ptarmigan.
“This is pretty much my backyard,” said Bennett, who added that the installation has been shown at the Venice Biennale and in New Zealand.
Bennett, Njootli and Arcand are heartened that they are fellow finalists. “The art world is small and the Indigenous art world is even smaller,” Arcand said.
“We’re all speaking about home and our experiences of home and where we come from and how it moulded us as artists,” Bennett said. “Our stories are quite different, but it’s definitely a common ground for conversation.”
With her work at the gallery, Kiwanga, who is 40 and based in Paris, France, explores the significance of colour and institutional architecture, abstracting the subject into an installation of floorto-ceiling panels and coloured walls, inspired by colours found in prisons, hospitals, factories and elsewhere. The work involved “a lot of research to tear away into something that’s quite simple,” Kiwanga said.
Quebec artist Rafman creates immersive video installations that question society’s relationship with technology. He was not present at the gallery Tuesday to discuss his work.