The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia announced Omaskêko Cree artist Duane Linklater as this year’s Sobey Art Award recipient, awarding the North Bay resident a $50,000 prize, and an auspicious segue from the status of “emerging” to mid-career, and international. Linklater represents Ontario in Canada’s most prestigious award for contemporary artists under the age of forty (one that nominates its artists according to geography, in an arguably outdated fashion). Contending against a shortlist comprised of Tamara Henderson, Pascal Grandmaison, Mark Clintberg, and Isabelle Pauwels (their practices sharing certain commonalities with a longlist marked by identity and politics, and articulated through vastly divergent and often ephemeral media), Linklater stood out with his resolutely direct and economical approach. Pop culture references go divulged and short-changed in his photographic work; heroic narratives get tested and humbly realized in his films. However the difference that Linklater promotes most stringently among this coterie of emerging artists is one of directness. He seems to want to channel a thing truly.
Linklater sets himself apart by promoting a practice that doesn’t elide its protagonist, narrative, or political profile. Trained at the University of Alberta, and carrying a recent MFA degree from Bard's esteemed studio program, the Moose Cree First Nation-born artist has crafted a politically astute and mutlifaceted practice that appears motivated by themes of power, nationhood, and cultural agitation, expressed through concept-prone media. Curatorial one-offs, like Canadian artist Althea Thauberger presenting a (rather thin) exhibition of Linklater’s work at Susan Hobbs, last season; or mentor-like collaborations, like Linklater’s spare and affecting 2012 film “Modest Livelihood,” produced with Brian Jungen — these timely collusions quickly thrust Linklater’s name onto the national stage, helping his emergent practice reach mid-career status is a few short years.
However, Linklater’s practice deserves its notice. He takes a conceptualist approach to the brink of narrative articulation, flitting deftly and wending willingly to idea, while eschewing formalist notions of presentation. He queries social contexts and issues his reservations through recondite yet empathetic connections between structural histories and their moments of appearence, or even rupture. In his “Untitled (A Blueberry Garden for Bard College),” 2012, Linklater planted twelve bushes of the work’s titular fruit on Bard’s campus, evoking the garden as commentary on the Cree language and conceptions of natural objects in Western and indigenous frameworks. With “Reservation Dog” (2008), Linklater borrowed a local canine companion from Alberta’s Blood Reservation and documented the pair’s excursion into Calgary, probing discrepancies of reservation and urban experiences even through human and animal lens, while in an earlier work titled “Dear Duane Linklater,” the cerebrally-prone artist uploaded an email from the Tate Britain’s curatorial staff defending their wanting explanation of “Native American” religions (“Although I am far from an expert on Native American beliefs, I do not think that the statement causes too much controversy as to whether their religion is based around monotheism or polytheism”). Linklater’s work often teases out the ostensibly naturalized ways in which we understand our place within culture, and that process’s undergirding histories.
The Sobey Award marks Linklater’s sudden ascent to national awareness, celebrating the artist’s recent inclusion in high-profile, touring national exhibitions and in international showcases alike. In 2012, “A Modest Livelihood” was featured at the Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery as part of the international art event dOCUMENTA (13), and a few months later, the artist was included in the unstoppable “Beat Nation: Aboriginal Art and Hip Hop” (now at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain). This past summer, Linklater advanced his notoriety via Thauberger’s curatorial touch; and most recently, Calgary’s Esker Foundation is featuring Linklater in its fall exhibition.
Finally, the artist's Sobey victory works to underscore a recent influx of contemporary indigenous Canadian art within our national institutions. On the heels of the National Gallery of Canada’s mammoth “Sakahàn” exhibition, dedicated to global aboriginal art; and two exhibitions investigating indigenous art and its relation to activism at the Ryerson Image Centre and Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Linklater further intensifies the national visbility of our Idle No More movement, endevouring strong arguments for the entwinement of both urgent politics and thoughtful artistry within contemporary culture. In receiving the Sobey Art Award, Linklater embodies the provocative complexities of this rich intersection, while reiterating the relevance of earnestness, and saying a thing truly.
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