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Now in its 16th year, the Sobey Art Award is given out to a Canadian artist under the age of 40 who has initially landed on a jury-selected long list of nominees, chosen from each province or region of the country. The amount of the prize money alone has made the Sobey Art Award one of the most prestigious out there, and its impact on a career is substantial.

Three men and two women make up the shortlist, and their media vary greatly, from painting to photography, and montage to sound-based installations. Among the best known of the group is Charles Stankievech, who teaches at the University of Toronto’s visual arts faculty, and has exhibited globally at such prestigious art centres as Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

His work explores such weighty topics as the military-industrial complex and homeland security. At one point in his career, he was hired as a private contractor for the Department of National Defence, where he conducted independent research in intelligence operations. In Marfa, the artist suspended 36 electrifying fluorescent bug zappers in a grid above a public space. At night, the devices gave off a compelling blue glow and crackling sounds as bugs hit the lethal light source. Stankievech described the installation as “the paradoxes of security and beauty.”

Montreal-based multidisciplinary artist Hajra Waheed also explores themes of covert power and mass surveillance. Born in Calgary, Waheed spent part of her youth in the Persian Gulf, living in a gated community controlled by Saudi oil company Aramco, which may explain her interest in the power of secrecy.

One of her installations, The Cyphers, includes a low plinth with an assortment of unidentifiable objects, fragments, and faded photographs clipped to files, carefully laid out like a laboratory archive. The mystery and intrigue of not knowing what these items might represent is both frustrating and compelling. As one reviewer wrote, the work presents “the sheer madness of surveillance. When everything may hold importance, nothing can ever be discarded. A tiny, unexpected detail may reveal hidden truths or vital strategic information.”

Jeremy Shaw, a Vancouver artist who is now based in Berlin, offers up ethereal explorations into altered states of consciousness, presented through film, videos and sound. Shaw’s work is eerie and beautiful, and hard to pin down. One audiovisual installation presented at New York’s MoMA PS 1 in 2011, called Best Minds, was described in Canadian Art as “an audiovisual installation allying the mysticism of a splinter sect of Pentecostal Christians from the 1960s with current discussions on artificial intelligence.” The piece included slow-motion footage of snake-handing zealots. The slow pace underlined the unexpected grace and beauty in the Quakers’ actions as they flailed about.

Not all of the Sobey finalists are tapping alternate realities. Painter Brenda Draney, who has been nominated for a Sobey Art Award before, infuses her paintings with brilliant colour, gestures and figurative forms. The paintings are narratives about the people she grew up with in a small northern town. Draney is Cree, from Sawridge First Nation in Slave Lake, Alberta, home to approximately 6,800 people. By painting her neighbours and friends, she says, “I think there are other people from small northern towns who understand something from the heart of those narratives.”

Finally, William Robinson of Halifax is lesser known, as many of his installations have been exhibited temporarily during local festivals and exhibitions. His works are based on collaborations with other creatives and explore the marginal regions of music and sound. Installed at a Halifax church, the 2015 piece Sun Ship Machine Gun (Metallurgy I) was a mixed-media installation and performance involving saxophonists, video, audio, and sculpture. The installation was described as an exploration into “the narratives inherent in the metal of saxophones purported to have been descended from WWII’s discarded artillery shells that once took the form of aged European church bells.”

The winner of the 2016 Sobey Art Award will be announced November 1, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where an exhibit of the finalists’ works is on view now until February 5, 2017.

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