This weekend I was one of a small group of fortunate people who attended the Governor General Awards in Visual and Media Arts at Rideau Hall in Canada's capital city of Ottawa. It is without doubt one of the strangest spaces I have inhabited. The evening started off in an ornate and expansive room with thirty foot vaulted ceilings, large chandeliers, a string quartet, and chairs arranged for the guests to view the award ceremony. The GG, her husband, and the eight award winners sat on modest plush chairs facing the audience, and each award was presented by the winner's nominator, followed by short acceptance speeches, and two addresses from their excellencies. I had real trouble with the whole “your excellency” lingo, and fumbled a bit when I first met the GG, who was elegant, charming, and almost unnaturally attentive considering how many people were constantly approaching her throughout the night.
Michaëlle Jean has had some big shoes to fill after Canada's last GG, Adrienne Clarkson, gave the title some real meaning by committing so heavily to boost, support, and connect the arts and cultural communities in Canada. The new GG seems to be doing a great job, and if personal impressions are anything to go off, I'd say that Canada's new GG will be supportive of political art too. In fact, politics were definitely present at the awards ceremony, whether it was in the description of some of the more political artists life work such as Daphne Odjig, or whether it was jabs by speakers directed at the much-deserving Harper aministration – Canada's very own arts-bashing Bush.
After the awards, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, more wine, followed by a short speech from the GG, who reminded us that in the arts, we must all practices “resistance and diligence.” Then she insisted that the party would continue with live jazz and drinks in the adjacent room. As we walked back into the large chandeliered room, with live Brubeck sounds bouncing off the garish drapes, I thought about the contradictions of the evening. This is not a critique, but just observations, musings and provocations.
The awards ceremony and the whole evening really, are meant to celebrate Canadian artists and the community of individuals who tirelessly distribute, promote, exhibit, fund and produce media and art in Canada. Artists are agitators, provocateurs, jammers of cogs and the creative minds who challenge society's mores, habits, behaviours, assumptions, and ideologies. It therefore felt very strange to be in a room with under 100 others dressed in formal attire (black ties and long gowns on all but a few) sitting in neat rows, dutifully standing, clapping and singing the anthem when prompted. That the whole setting is so colonial, yet is a celebration of dissidence, is the primary contradiction that I felt during the whole evening. At one moment we had the great First Nations artist Daphne Odjig who has tackled – in her work and in her life – everything from colonialism to women's rights, speaking of her pride in her Anishnabe heritage and some minutes later we were all standing singing the Canadian anthem, a tune that folds the genocide of the First Nations in Canada into a post-colonial epitaph of “our home and native land.”
But these complexities make the whole event that much more interesting, and being there was fascinating. The privilege of eating and drinking in a beautiful and comfortable setting mixed with the politics of culture and the subtext of art that is resistant and diligent, all the while respecting colonial controls of tradition, dress, form and exclusion, have provided me with food for thought to say the least.
The eight winners this year are Ian Carr-Harris, Aganetha Dyck, R. Bruce Elder, Murray Favro, Fernand Leduc, Paul Mathieu, Daphne Odjig and David P. Silcox. Most had some element of the political in their art and work, but most notable for me was the environmental work of Dyck, Mathieu's tackling of sexuality and discrimination, Elder's challenge to mainstream cinema and Odjig's work addressing issues around women, First Nations communities, children and the marginalized, all stand out as outstanding.