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Rajni Perera, representing Ontario, is nominated for the 2021 Sobey Art Award.Handout

The latest: Sobey Art Award: Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an Inuk performer, wins Canada’s top art prize

After a pandemic hiatus that distributed the prize money evenly among all 25 finalists, the Sobey Art Award returns to its winning ways. This Saturday, the Sobey jury will announce a single winner of the $100,000 first prize, one of the richest visual arts awards in the world.

Competition will be stiff for the top honour among five short-listed finalists – to judge from the exhibition of their work now showing at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Rajni Perera paints costumed and masked figures from a mythic world of her own invention.Becca Wallace/NGH

Front and centre – and intriguing and vivid – is the work of Toronto artist Rajni Perera, the finalist from the Ontario region. Perera invents her own exotic multicultural sci-fi vocabulary, heavily influenced by the strong colours and clear lines of South Asian miniature painting, but executed on a bold scale. In hot pinks and saturated blues, she paints costumed and masked figures from a mythic world of her own invention, and also makes her vision three dimensional with a spectacular sculpted bust wearing a fabric headdress.

Rémi Belliveau created a 55-minute film and archival material about the recording of an Acadian folk song by a largely fictional Jean Dularge.Becca Wallace/NGH

Rémi Belliveau, representing the Atlantic region, is nominated for the 2021 Sobey Art Award.Handout

New Brunswick native Rémi Belliveau, representing Atlantic Canada but now resident in Montreal, also turns to fiction to craft cultural identity, but in this case, it’s a project of reclamation rather than invention. Belliveau has created a 55-minute film and archival material about the recording of an Acadian folk song, Viens voir l’Acadie (Come see Acadia) by a largely fictional Jean Dularge. The catchy song features bitterly satirical lyrics in New Brunswick’s Chiac slang, the French peppered with English, about the commercialization of Acadian history and the Evangeline myth.

The story goes that the song was never released for copyright reasons, and it’s a testament to Belliveau’s cunning that it’s hard to know how much of this is true. The engaging film features highly plausible black-and-white footage of a 1960s recording studio in which the producer doubles on tambourine and the backup singers never stop smoking.

Gabi Dao's a sentimental dissidence multimedia immersive installation.Becca Wallace/NGH

Both these takes on cultural identity use, in part, whimsy and fancy to engage their audience. For Gabi Dao, the Vancouver artist representing the West Coast and the Yukon, memory is the slippery material of choice. Based on a research trip she did to the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam, Dao has made a film featuring multiple viewpoints on the place and her ancestral links to it, splicing together evocative imagery and adding a soundtrack of her own voice and various interviews. The video screen on which this plays is bookended by two physical frames on which hang bead curtains suggesting entry to a shifting and ephemeral place.

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory turned a brief clip of a mask performance into a physical object by screening it on a stretched animal hide.Becca Wallace/NGH

One of the most significant changes in the Sobey criteria for 2021 was the removal of any age limit on this prize for emerging artists. Two of the five finalists have benefited from that: Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is now 42, while Lorna Bauer is 41. Bathory is a Greenland Inuit mask dancer (who resides in Iqaluit) and is representing the North and the Prairies. She has turned a brief clip of a mask performance into a physical object by screening it, GIF-like, on a stretched animal hide, creating a powerful physical presence in a darkened gallery and an interesting juxtaposition of traditional and technological cultures.

Lorna Bauer's series of large photographs, with reflections of nature in the glass windows of architecture, and some of her idiosyncratic blown-glass work.Becca Wallace/NGH

Thematically, Bauer is the odd one out here, addressing form and creation rather than identity. A Montreal artist representing Quebec, she is showing a series of large photographs, with reflections of nature in the glass windows of architecture that ask viewers to position themselves in relationship to these puzzling spaces. Meanwhile, Bauer also includes some of her idiosyncratic blown-glass work, a collection of show-stopping vessels with boxy rectangular bodies and off-centre necks.

The Sobey’s regional focus, dividing the country into five areas and picking a finalist from each, has not always served the prize well, as art from Canada’s three big cities often overshadows the other entries. That is one possible advantage to removing the age limit – a change that was intended to make the prize more accessible – and certainly this year the competition powers back into action. Last year, the award program’s entire $625,000 budget was divided among the 25 artists on the long list, as both the awards ceremony and the exhibition were cancelled. This year, the four runners-up win $25,000 each, but on Saturday night, only one person will walk away with the big prize.

The Sobey Art Award exhibition continues to Feb. 20 at the National Gallery of Canada.

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