Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an Inuk performer, was awarded the 2021 Sobey Art Award, Canada’s top art prize. She specializes in performing the Greenlandic mask dance uaajeerneq.

An Inuk performer, whose artwork includes the hide of a polar bear she killed herself, is the winner of Canada’s top art prize. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, a performance artist and storyteller based in Iqaluit, was presented with the $100,000 Sobey Art Award in a ceremony at the National Gallery of Canada on Saturday night.

“I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so exciting,” Williamson Bathory said, describing her response to hearing her name announced at the Ottawa event.

She immediately turned serious, however, asking the audience to take a moment to remember the Indigenous children whose unmarked graves have been discovered on the sites of former residential schools.

“This is the absolute foundation of where we live, literally the soil,” she said in an interview after the ceremony. “The foundation of our country is built on these children. We must always remember them.”

Williamson Bathory is part Kalaaleq or Greenlandic Inuk, and specializes in performing the Greenlandic mask dance uaajeerneq.

In the exhibition of work by the five regional finalists for the Sobey Award, Williamson Bathory was represented by a brief video loop in which she is shown drumming, with her image projected onto a stretched polar-bear skin. The bear was killed in a nighttime encounter outside her cabin in Iqaluit. She had to kill the animal to protect her family, she said. Williamson Bathory explained that the drumming is intended to honour the bear, while her costume in the video, which she made herself based on traditional regalia, uses the colours of the bear’s fat.

“Williamson Bathory’s performance practice courageously defies preconceived notions [of contemporary art] through embodied lived experience,” the jury said in a statement explaining its decision. “Her works invite us to share in a world abundant with possibility infused with the interconnections of land, family, community and cultural knowledge.”

This year’s prize was judged by a jury of five Canadian and two international curators, and chaired by Sasha Suda, director of the National Gallery.

Williamson Bathory was born and grew up in Saskatoon, where her father, a British immigrant and anthropologist, worked at the University of Saskatchewan. She has performed uaajeerneq since childhood alongside her mother, who is Kalaaleq. The mask dance revolves around storytelling that plays upon humour, fear and sexuality.

The Sobey Art Award is one of the richest visual art prizes in the world, and recognizes an emerging Canadian artist from a long list of 25 that is assembled from five regions. It was first presented in 2002.

This year, for the first time, there was no stipulation that the artist be 40 or younger: Williamson Bathory, representing the Prairies and the North, is 42, and thus the oldest person to have ever won. The four other finalists – Lorna Bauer, Rémi Belliveau, Gabi Dao and Rajni Perera – each received $25,000.

The Globe and Mail, November 6, 2021