Indigenous Success Stories

Media and Reconciliation (84-86)

Prestigious awards go to Indigenous artists whose work challenges and propels society forward

March 14, 2024
Two photos: At left is a close up of a woman's face. At left is a black and white shot of a man.

Shuvinai Ashoona. Photo by Kitra Cahana. Courtesy of West Baffin Cooperative. And Greg Staats by Greg Staats, auto portrait. Greg Staats, Skarù:reˀ [Tuscarora] from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, and Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona from Kinngait, Nunavut are 2024 Governor General award winners in visual and media arts.

Both Staats and Ashoona credit their Indigenous cultures as the inspiration for their visual creations.

Ashoona, the second artist from the West Baffin Cooperative to receive the award, credits her sister for giving her the nudge to start drawing more than two decades ago at 33 years of age. Ashoona has since created many mixed media works depicting Inuit culture from her own experiences and surroundings.

Her work has garnered accolades, including the Gershon Iskowitz Prize in 2018. She was also one of two special mentions by the jury of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2022.

Much of her artistry reflects the beauty that surrounds her in the north, “the mountains, or the town, or the workers,” Ashoona said.

man sleeping with clams
untitled (man sleeping with clams) by Shuvinai Ashoona.

She is thankful for the recognition and is proud to be one of the award winners.

“(There are) great artists all around… and I’m grateful for being one of them,” she said.

Staats is also pleased to be recognized for the work he has done since he began in photography in 1985.

He is a founding member of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographer’s Association and was awarded the 1999 Duke & Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council for the Arts. In 2021 he received the Toronto Arts Foundation’s inaugural Indigenous Artist Award. 

At the age of 61, though his subjects and presentation may have changed, his keen eye and ability to evoke feeling through the lens has not.

“I call it, or we call it, Indigenous intuition and so, very similarly to photographic intuition we develop as photographers, we develop our own visual language as well. So there’s a parallel with my visual language and my Indigenous knowledge,” he said.

Staats’ photography, video and installation art showcases elements of symbolic importance to his community.

Landscapes, portraits, historical artifacts and sequence photography are all captured in his work.

“When I transitioned from straight photography to installation photography, to installation with objects … I brought all those transferable skills that I had as a photographer,” said Staats.

“Instead of seeing a piece of paper as the print, you can see the wall as the image and you can start placing things on the wall; objects with photographs, with text, to get an overall feeling from an installation.”

what did you see
what did you see along the road of transformation by Greg Staats

By combining his artistic skills with the knowledge he has gained from his ancestors, Staats is able to convey messages and stories in a unique format.

“As a photographer we develop an intuition after a while that draws you to subject matter that you keep repeating and repeating,” he explained. “So, I usually take photographs of landscapes… (or) I use archival materials, my grandfather’s diaries, old newspaper clippings and I’ll incorporate those as well into what I call a mnemonic. So that all comes from the idea of wampum and oral tradition.”

He explained he will take questions to knowledge keepers and asks them to explain them. This could include the meaning of a word and its orientation, or the significance of certain areas in his community. From there he creates images that convey the stories and captures the feelings of his home or from upstate New York.

“So it depends on what I want to say that photography can’t say and sculpture and installation can,” he added.

All of the artists will travel to the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa this fall to officially receive their awards.

Ashoona and Staats were among six recipients of this year’s Governor General awards. The others are Barbara Astman, Dominique Blain, Don Ritter and Métis filmmaker Marjorie Beaucage (see our story here

“Each one of the eight winners of the 2024 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts is a visionary in their own right,” said Michelle Chawla, director and chief executive officer of the Canada Council for the Arts, which created the awards program with the Governor General of Canada in 1999.

“Through a unique, evocative and bold view of the world, these artists have succeeded in awakening new perspectives, contributing to public debate and propelling society forward. My congratulations to each one of them for their contributions to visual and media arts and for continuously challenging and inspiring audiences to reimagine what is possible.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.