First Nation artist Ursula Johnson wins Canada’s $50,000 Sobey Award

The prize recognises artists under 40 from each of the country’s five regions

Ursula Johnson Rita Taylor, courtesy of Banff Centre for the arts and Ursula Johnson

The Nova Scotia-born Ursula Johnson, 37, a performance and installation artist of Mi’kmaw First Nation ancestry, was named winner of Canada’s prestigious Sobey Award. The contemporary art prize, worth C$50,000, has been given annually since 2006—and before that biennially since 2002—to a Canadian artist aged 40 or under.

It is the first time an artist from the country’s Atlantic provinces has been chosen as the first place winner, although the awards originated there and were first organised by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in cooperation with the Sobey Art Foundation, established to continue the patronage of the late Canadian art collector and supermarket magnate Frank H. Sobey. The National Gallery of Canada now administers the prize and nominees are chosen by a panel of judges representing the country’s five regions—the West Coast and the Yukon, the Prairies and the North, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces—plus an international juror. Five artists from each region are picked for the long list, which is then winnowed down to five finalists.

Johnson often uses traditional indigenous crafts and materials in her performances and installations that address issues around identity and culture. The judges said in a statement that she “was singled out for her strong voice, her generosity and collaborative spirit”.

The country’s other regions were represented by the Québecois photographer Jacynthe Carrier; the Toronto-based performance and video artist Bridget Moser; the multidisciplinary artist Divya Mehra, who splits her time between Winnipeg, New York, and Delhi; and the indigenous artist Raymond Boisjoly from Vancouver. Each of the runners-up received $10,000, with another $1,000 going to each of the long-listed artists.

“I’m super stoked,” Johnson said when accepting the award at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto Wednesday night. “I’m just likely to explode.” Rob Sobey, who chairs the Sobey Art Foundation and is also based in Nova Scotia, was equally excited, saying after the prize-giving that “it’s like winning the Stanley Cup,” the coveted hockey trophy.