Toronto-based artist Abbas Akhavan has won the 2015 Sobey Art Award, at $50,000 one of the richest purses in the Canadian art world. The Tehran-born Akhavan, 38, prevailed over four other finalists to take the juried prize at a ceremony on Wednesday evening at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.
The Sobey was started in 2002 by the Sobey Art Foundation, which is based in Nova Scotia, as a way to recognize the best in Canadian contemporary art. Initially awarded every two years, it has been handed out annually since 2006 to an artist under 40 who has exhibited work in a public or commercial gallery within 18 months of being nominated. Akhavan, who came to Canada with his family in the late 1980s at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, was among the five finalists for the 2015 prize announced in June this year, based on nominations submitted in February.
Akhavan, who obtained a BFA in studio arts/art history from Montreal's Concordia University in 2004, and an MFA from the University of British Columbia in 2006, works in a variety of idioms – installation art, video, drawing, painting, sculpture and performance – often with a political and elegiac cast. In the past decade, he has had residencies in locations as varied as Toulouse in France, Santander in Spain, Dubai, Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island, N.Y., and Newfoundland's Fogo Island.
In 2009, he participated in the well-regarded How Soon is Now survey show of recent contemporary art hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery. His piece, Landscape: For the birds, consisted of a 40-minute loop of the songs of sundry invasive British bird species, played 24 hours a day from speakers housed in two cypress trees outside the VAG. He has a show of installation work, titled variations on a garden, at Toronto's artist-run gallery Mercer Union. (It is scheduled to close on Oct. 31.)
The six-member curatorial panel said in a statement released on Wednesday that it "wanted to underline the generosity and empathy at play in Abbas's work. Through a fugitive practice that resists fixed meaning, Akhavan reasserts that power and engagement are always relevant subjects for examination."
Prize organizers divide nominees by region. Akhavan was nominated for the Ontario region. The other finalists – Sarah Anne Johnson (Prairies and the North), Raymond Boisjoly (West Coast/Yukon), Jon Rafman (Quebec) and Lisa Lipton (Atlantic) – each received $10,000 as runners-up. Work by all short-listed artists is on display at the AGNS through Jan. 3, 2016.
Previous Sobey winners have included Annie Pootoogook (2006), David Altmejd (2009) and Nadia Myre (2014).