Dec. 13, 2022
The Arts are Returning to Their Winning Ways
The toll the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on artists is impossible to measure, which is why last month’s Celebration for the Arts was doubly poignant.
With 700 people attending the annual awards celebration, Mayor Jyoti Gondek, MA’03, PhD’13, presented the eight Cultural Leaders Legacy Arts Awards — a legacy from 2012 when Calgary was named the Cultural Capital of Canada. Each award is funded by a contribution from a local philanthropist or organization with equal matching money from Calgary Arts Development (CAD). All honourees receive a $5,000 cash prize as a way of recognizing how their non-conforming, culture-shifting work impacts and enriches our community.
In 2021, CAD invested $11.6 million through more than 500 arts grants to individual artists and arts organizations, which resulted in almost 22,000 arts experiences. Of this year’s award recipients, three are University of Calgary grads, two of whom who came to the university as international students to study master’s degrees in fine arts.
We spoke to those former international students — Claudia Chagoya, MFA’19, and Sarah Uwadiae, MFA’18, — about how they found work during two years of intermittent lockdown, why they’ve remained in Calgary and how our lives can be deflected, damaged and diverted by our past.
Winner of the New Canadian Artist Award (sponsored by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society), Chagoya remembers graduating with an MFA in sculpture mere months before the pandemic struck. At the time, she was madly applying for grants and working at a restaurant that, all too soon, became a casualty of COVID and shuttered its doors. These days, what helps pay Chagoya’s bills is her part-time communications job at the Calgary Animated Objects Society. Expanding on her undergrad work that explored gender violence in her home country of Mexico, Chagoya came to UCalgary in 2017 and, despite the challenges of communicating in English (her second language), remains in awe of the advantages artists have at the university and in this city: 24/7 studio space at UCalgary; the networking and mentorship she received from her supervisor, Dr. Michele Hardie, PhD, who has guided Chagoya through the complex system of applying for residencies and grants; the international residency exchange program (Chagoya swapped spots with a U.K. artist for six weeks in 2018); and so forth.
Haunting, provocative and disturbing, Chagoya’s installations twist materials rooted in her Mexican past such as rebozos (rectangular shawls) with salt, copal (Mexican incense) and sawdust, ingeniously used to create statements about feminicide (the killing of women because of their gender). The attitude of neglect towards women that she witnessed in Mexico disrupts the grieving process, explains Chagoya, and ultimately devalues the worth of life. Evident of this was her 2019 immersive installation, Novem, where a series of suspended rebozos dripped with water and crystallized salt while unintelligible voices whispered novenario prayers in Spanish throughout the space at the Nickle Galleries.
Next up for Chagoya is a collaborative work with the Fem Assembly, a local feminist artist collective, which is in the process of mounting an exhibit that focuses on intersectional feminism and questions social-justice issues. It is scheduled to open in June 2023. If Chagoya looks familiar, you may have met her last summer where she ran public workshops as an artist-in-residence at the Central Library in Calgary. Her work has also appeared at cSPACE, Calgary Allied Arts Foundation and Arts Commons, as well as various galleries in Mexico and the Royal College of Art in London.
Squirrelled away in a back room at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, we find Sarah Uwadiae, winner of the 2022 Royal Bank of Canada Emerging Artist Award. Having just completed the set for Persephone’s production of The Fiancèe, this Nigerian multidisciplinary artist is not only a set and costume designer, but has also recently filmed a documentary, Catharsis, to be released in March 2023. Before that launch, however, Uwadiae will experience a Winnipeg winter as she’s designed costumes for Trouble in Mind, a play set at a Broadway theatre in 1957 that opens at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in January.
It was at UCalgary, however, that Uwadiae plunged deeper into the power of design in storytelling and discovered that she does not need to be "tied down or stuck in a box.” Rather, she identifies as a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller . . . "I can tell stories in a very visual way by creating a world for the characters, or I can do what I did with the documentary, which is to deal with some very real issues such as racial trauma.”
Like Chagoya’s work, Catharsis is a fearless two-part documentary documentary borne from a desire to de-stigmatize mental health and therapy in African and Black communities. “I created a space for African immigrant participants to process racial trauma with a POC therapist,” Uwadiae says. “The two episodes attempt to demystify the therapy process in an ethical way. I realized through the process that the participants needed to be in full control of their journeys. I hope the film provides an opportunity for honest dialogue regarding mental health within Black communities, and personal accountability within non-minority communities.”
Another highlight for Uwadiae happened last summer when she worked as a costume designer at the Stratford Festival on its first-ever Nigerian play, Death and the King’s Horseman. “The thrill of being on a team that brought Nigeria to a stage in Canada meant everything to me,” she says. Striving to be as authentic as possible, Stratford flew Uwadiae to Nigeria where she shopped for materials and pieces for the play.
“Dressing characters in authentic Nigerian outfits certainly helped tell their stories through the costumes,” explains Uwadiae. “Seeing my vision materialize in such a colourful and beautiful way was enormously gratifying.”
As for advice for new grads or emerging artists, Uwadiae says, “Be true to who you are, never stop learning and most importantly, stay curious."
In fact, she adds, “that’s another thing the U of C helped with . . . it fed my curiosities. What often leads me to investigate, or to do something, is the question, ‘What if’?”
Discovering the answers to that short question is, ultimately, what drives Uwadiae to invent, manipulate and create the worlds she does, while always maintaining, “there is no box that will contain your greatness."
The sentiments around the importance of community and the arts were echoed by Gondek and many of the speakers who stressed how the arts enrich our personal and communal identities. Adds Chagoya, “The arts, they touch our soul . . . wherever you're from.”
The other six award honourees were: Daniel Cardinal McCarney (2022 Rozsa Foundation Emerging Arts Manager Award); Casa Mexico Foundation (2022 Sandstone City Builder Award); Sandra Sawatzky (2022 Doug and Lois Mitchell Outstanding Calgary Artist Award); Danielle Piper (2022 TD Bank Group Indigenous Artist Award); Janey Luc-German (2022 ATB Financial Healing Through the Arts Award); and Stephanie Hutchinson, BComm’07, (2022 Mamdani Arts Leadership Award).