Kalaaleq artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory has been named winner of the 2021 Sobey Art Award. The multidisciplinary artist, poet, curator and uaajeerneq (Greenlandic mask dancer) performer is only the second Inuk to win the prestigious $100,000 prize in its 20-year history, following Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), who received the honour in 2006.
The announcement was made on November 6th at an in-person ceremony at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, ON, introduced by Governor General Mary May Simon, who praised the artists for connecting humanity through their art. "When we take back our own stories, reclaim them, we can start to shape ourselves and how others perceive us," she said on stage.
Stephanie Comilang, the 2019 award winner, announced Williamson Bathory as the recipient of this year's award (In 2020, the Sobey was split between the 25 longlisted artists). Williamson Bathory came up on stage, laughing with infectious delight, before turning serious, asking those present to quietly make eye contact with each other and to remember not just their own children, but "the thousands and thousands of Indigenous children buried in all the homelands all over this country." She continued, "We have to hold these children inside us, always and forever. To me, this is our art..."
When asked by the IAQ following the event whether she had any projects that the award's $100,000 purse would help facilitate, Williamson Bathory said, "What I've really been able to show to my family and to show the community and even the arts in general is that I'm able to provide for my family as an artist. And it should be a viable option for everybody. I am very proud that I'm able to raise my two children as healthy and strong individuals by making art."
The jury, comprised of seven Canadian and international arts professionals led by NGC Director and CEO Sasha Suda, said in a statement: “Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory provocatively transforms the framework of references for contemporary art. Williamson Bathory’s performance practice courageously defies preconceived notions through embodied lived experience. Her works invite us to share in a world abundant with possibility infused with the interconnections of land, family, community and cultural knowledge.“
Williamson Bathory, who is based in Iqaluit, NU, was shortlisted for the Prairies & North region, alongside Gabi Dao (West Coast & Yukon), Rajni Perera (Ontario), Lorna Bauer (Quebec) and Rémi Belliveau (Atlantic). The four finalists, all of whom where nominated for the award for the first time, each received $25,000 and all five shortlisted artists are featured in an exhibition at the NGC, which runs until February 2022.
This year, Glenn Gear, Tanya Lukin Linklater and Maureen Gruben also made history, marking the highest number of circumpolar Indigenous artists ever represented on the 21-person longlist. Each of those finalists also received $10,000. Williamson Bathory, Gear, Linklater and Gruben join an impressive list of circumpolar Indigenous Sobey nominees in the last decade. Mark Igloliorte and Couzyn van Heuvelen were longlisted in 2012 and 2018 respectively; Kablusiak was shortlisted in 2019 and in 2020 asinnajaq made the longlist for the iconic award.
In a September interview with the IAQ, Williamson Bathory said, “It was wonderful to see so many Northerners and so many Inuit on the list. Something that I've always dreamed of and hoped for, and pushed for is Inuit working at a high level of creative excellence. The way that northern Indigenous and Inuit artists are succeeding right now, on a national level—there's some amazing work coming out of people who are really pushing themselves, and expressing themselves.”
Williamson Bathory is best known for expressing herself through uaajeerneq, a highly physical, movement practice that touches on themes of humility, sex, fear and humour. She is a second-generation performer practicing the artform, having been taught by her mother, Karla Jessen Williamson.
Collaboration plays a big role in Williamson Bathory’s practice, working closely with artists such as Tanya Tagaq, performing uaajeerneq on the singer’s 2016 music video for Retribution.
Tanya Tagaq Retribution
(2016) Video, 14 min COURTESY THE ARTIST
Williamson Bathory’s Sobey Award installation at the NGC, Nannupugut! (We killed a polar bear!), was inspired by a face-to-face encounter she and her husband experienced with an animal who wandered into their camp in the middle of the night. A two-minute video of Williamson Bathory performing uaajeerneq—shot by another frequent collaborator, artist Jamie Griffiths—is projected onto a bear hide. In it, the artist is dressed in mottled rust colours, designed to conjure the appearance of uqsuq (fat), honouring the bear.
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Nannuppugut! (2021)
COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA COPYRIGHT THE ARTIST
The Sobey Award isn’t the only prize on Williamson Bathory’s list of accomplishments. In 2020, she became the first winner of the Sinchi Indigenous Art Award. She received several honours for the 2018 multidisciplinary theatre piece, Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, which took home a Dora Mavor Moore Award. The Toronto Theatre Critics Association also named Williamson Bathory best performer that year.
In 2018, Williamson Bathory was named the inaugural winner of the Inuit Art Foundation’s Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, which honours the work of established mid-career Inuit artists.
Laakkuluk Wiliamson Bathory and Jamie Griffiths, White Liar and the Known Shore: Frobisher and the Queen (2021) Photograph 213.4 x 853.4 cm COURTESY THE ARTISTS
Williamson Bathory has also made several appearances in the Inuit Art Quarterly, most recently appearing on the cover of the Fall 2021 issue. The striking image was taken this summer from White Liar and the Known Shore: Frobisher and the Queen, a collaborative installation with Griffiths, commissioned by the Interdisciplinary Media Arts Association/Population of Noise (IMAPON). The 28-foot banner was erected in McBride Park in Vancouver, BC, depicting Williamson Bathory as Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Griffiths as 16th-century explorer Captain Martin Frobisher, challenging passersby to address contemporary racism and examine their own roles in a colonialist society.
During the post-award interview with the IAQ, Williamson Bathory says she thinks all the time about Inuit artists trying to get on their feet.
"I know how extremely difficult it is to find housing, to afford food, to afford any of the regular items in life," she says. "And what Inuit artists do is revolutionary, pushing past the colonial need to become smaller, to become quiet. I know that all Inuit artists are pushing to do that, to be loud and expressive, and exploratory."