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Interviews / October 29, 2015

Abbas Akhavan Discusses Winning the Sobey Award

Toronto-based, Tehran-born artist Abbas Akhavan talks about winning the $50,000 first-place prize at this year’s Sobey Art Award.

Toronto-based, Tehran-born artist Abbas Akhavan won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award last night—and promptly celebrated with a dance party. “We DJed a lot of tunes on my iPod,” he told Canadian Art over the phone this morning. “We had a dance party around Brian Jungen’s piece upstairs at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.”

The win was revealed last night at a ceremony at the AGNS. “I had a delayed response,” said Akhavan. “It all felt pretty dreamy. I felt about three feet behind my own place. I didn’t know who was speaking but I spoke English and expressed some of my sentiments, and hoped they were audible to some people. It’s kind of ridiculous, kind of amazing.”

Akhavan represented Ontario in the competition. Other finalists included Raymond Boisjoly (West Coast and Yukon), Sarah Anne Johnson (Prairies and the North), Jon Rafman (Quebec) and Lisa Lipton (Atlantic).

“In a perfect world all five of us would be going home with the same prize money and the same award,” says Akhavan.

“My most recent show at Mercer Union [in Toronto] really made me feel anchored in a local ecology and dialogue that I never felt a part of—in its entirety, not just in Canada.

“I said before the ceremony, ‘If I don’t win, I feel so embedded in something now…I’m invested in a bigger discourse and dialogue in Canada. I want to have a chance to give back that generosity to younger people, other artists, art venues—not just through my work. I want to really give back. That is my priority.”

This year’s Sobey jury included Michelle Jacques, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Meeka Walsh, curator and Border Crossings editor; Crystal Mowry, curator of Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; Mark Lanctôt, curator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; David Diviney, curator of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; and guest judge Josée Drouin-Brisebois, curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada.

Each year, the Sobey Art Award is given to a visual artist age 40 or under who has exhibited in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated. The winner receives $50,000, while each of four shortlisted finalists receives $10,000, and $500 goes to each of the remaining longlisted artists.

“I don’t want to make too many plans,” said Akhavan when asked what he’ll do next. “I feel like I got a big chunk of fertilizer that I can use to nourish some soil. It’s a nice pat on the back to keep on going, and doing.”