Lori Blondeau is a "bit overwhelmed" now that her Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts is public knowledge.
"I think my phone started ringing at seven o’clock this morning… I’ve had colleagues congratulating me, friends, my family," she said on Tuesday morning, several hours after the 2021 winners were announced.
Blondeau is one of eight artists recognized this year by the Governor General of Canada and the Canada Council of the Arts for their contributions to contemporary visual art, media and fine craft. Winners are selected by a peer committee and each receives a medallion and a cash prize of $25,000.
Blondeau, 56, is a photographer and performance artist of Cree, Saulteaux and Métis background originally from Saskatchewan. She moved to Winnipeg in 2018 and is an assistant professor in the School of Art at the University of Manitoba.
She’s had to keep news of the award under wraps for a while — teaching and preparing for a new exhibition at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art have been welcome distractions — but was in a state of shock when she first learned about the recognition.
"And very, very honoured," she says. "It’s a national award and to be included with the people in the past who have received it and the people who were awarded this year with myself, it means quite a bit.
"You know, you don’t make artwork thinking about, ‘Oh, I want to get this award.’ You just do your work and when something like this comes up it feels good."
Blondeau is the second member of her family to receive a GG Arts award. In 2002, her brother Edward Poitras also won an artistic achievement award — a major point of pride for their mother.
"She’s an Elder and she was just very proud; she said, ‘I can’t believe I lived to see two of my children be awarded this award,’ " Blondeau says.
Growing up in Saskatchewan in the ‘60s, Blondeau’s experiences of racism informed her early work, which confronts colonial stereotypes of Indigenous people and women, specifically, through photos and performances. Today, history and storytelling are her main focus.
"I’m looking more deeply at our history of Indigenous people on this land and what that means to me," she says. "I look at artists as… kind of history-keepers and so my goal is just that I can continue making artwork and I feel I’m very privileged to be able to."
As a performance artist, Blondeau chooses not to present her work online or in video form; as a result, that side of her practice is currently on hold during the pandemic.
More than half of this year’s Governor General’s Arts recipients are of First Nations, Inuit and Métis descent — the largest contingent in the awards’ history. Blondeau says that while the awards have recognized Indigneous artists in the past, she has noticed a greater focus on inclusivity among many institutions following anti-racism protests last spring.
"It’s interesting that it takes a situation like that for institutions to realize that something has to change," she says. "I’m happy to be part of that change."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.