Kablusiak, an Inuk artist born in Yellowknife. Photo: Elyse Bouvier
“There’s freedom and autonomy within Inuit art – and Garfield can be included.”
Yellowknife-born Inuvialuk artist Kablusiak is one of five contenders waiting to find out next month if they won the $100,000 2023 Sobey Art Award.
Kablusiak’s entry? One part Ookpik toy snowy owl, one part Garfield. Maybe one part Furby, the iconic 1990s robot-gremlin pet.
Why Garfield? Why the Furby?
“If an Inuk made it, it’s Inuit art in my books. Challenging the notion of what Inuit art should look like is definitely one of my favourite things to do,” Kablusiak told Cabin Radio last week while sitting inside Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, where the five Sobey finalists’ works are being shown until March next year.
“I feel like a lot of people see Inuit art and think of Inuit as relics of the past. I think it’s easy to get stuck in one idea of what Indigenous art and Inuit art should look like. Breaking out of that is why I do it.”
Kablusiak’s mother and father are from Tuktoyaktuk and Sachs Harbour respectively. The family moved from Yellowknife to Edmonton when Kablusiak was four.
The Ookpik-esque creations, harking back to a hit 1960s toy created by Kuujjuaq’s Jeannie Snowball, are the shortlisted entry for Canada’s Prairies and the North.
“I would hope that it’s funny and sparks a little bit of thought,” Kablusiak said.
“I love mixing nostalgia, queerness, visual histories from the North, using material culture that Inuit have used for forever like sealskin or soapstone – using these materials in a different way and mixing in my own experiences, blending all these things together. Past and present, north and south, all these different binaries, and trying to go in between them.
“The absurdity is what drives me. Pushing the limits, seeing what I can play with and have fun with.”
The four other contenders are:
Michèle Pearson Clarke from Ontario, whose installation “presents the discomfort of inexperienced singers, pointing to the deeper lived anxieties felt by queer masculine women as they navigate socio-political landscapes,” according to a description provided by the National Gallery of Canada;
Séamus Gallagher, representing Atlantic Canada, who “casts a queer, non-binary lens on identities and habitations, fabricating and layering multiple realities through virtual and actual collage techniques;”
Métis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, for the West Coast and Yukon, who “works across multiple media to draw out the political, historical and deeply personal contexts of everyday materials such as tobacco, blackberry juice and hair;” and
Anahita Norouzi, representing Québec, who “travels between Iran and Canada to research colonialism’s destructive legacies in Southwest Asia.”
A winner will be chosen on Saturday, November 18. That person will receive $100,000, with the four remaining shortlisted artists each receiving $25,000.
The Sobey Art Award bills itself as Canada’s pre-eminent contemporary visual art award.
“It’s like a hockey tourney but the art version,” Kablusiak said of the award. “It’s very awesome to be recognized by a nationwide award. It’s hard to put into words how crazy this is.”
The artist is now working on group exhibitions due to take place in the next year in Vancouver and Edmonton.