By Shannon Boklaschuk
University of Saskatchewan (USask) alumna Ruth Cuthand is one of the 2020 winners of the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (GGArts).
The Canada Council for the Arts announced the names of the eight award recipients in Ottawa on Feb. 19. Seven artists and one arts professional are being honoured in recognition of their exceptional careers and their remarkable contributions to the visual arts, media arts and fine craft.
A peer committee selected the winners, who will each receive a $25,000 prize and a special-edition bronze medallion in recognition of their excellent work. The winners’ works will also be displayed at the Art Gallery of Alberta, in Edmonton, this summer.
Cuthand (BFA’83, MFA’92), who studied in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Art and Art History, was excited when she learned she was selected for the award.
“I learned that I won the award when I was in London, England, way back in October,” she said in an email interview. “I jumped up and down with my daughter, Thirza. I kept telling her I won a GG.”
Cuthand said she wants to thank her nominators: jake moore, director of the University Art Galleries and Collection at USask and a faculty member in the Department of Art and Art History; Dr. Jen Budney (PhD), research associate at the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives; and Michelle LaVallee, director of the Indigenous Art Centre at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Cuthand also praised USask alumnus Joseph Anderson (MFA’09), office coordinator in the Department of Art and Art History, “who worked his fingers to the bone to get everything together.”
The nominators also had much praise for Cuthand.
“Ruth Cuthand is an artist, mentor, teacher, activist and mother, and member of Little Pine First Nation. Her career has been devoted to exploring the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous people in Canada and resisting the forces of oppression through the use of sharp intellect, biting humour and powerful aesthetics,” they wrote.
“She is well-known as a leading figure in contemporary Indigenous art as well as a powerful voice in the Canadian art scene’s ongoing discussions of colonialism, racism and Reconciliation. Her influence, mentorship and support of many, past and present, have been an important component in the building of an infrastructure for contemporary Indigenous art in Canada.”
Cuthand uses her work to explore social, environmental and historical issues, such as contaminated water and living conditions on First Nations, disease, colonialism and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. When asked what inspires her artistic practice, Cuthand said “I am not sure what inspires my art. I know that I make it as a response to the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada.”
Cuthand, who was born in 1954 in Prince Albert, Sask., is known for creating intricate beaded images of disease, such as small pox, cholera and tuberculosis, which reference colonization and trading and their impact on Indigenous people.
Over the years Cuthand has built up a large body of work in a wide variety of media, including drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and video. In 2013, she was awarded a Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. In 2016, she was recognized as one of the College of Arts and Science’s Alumni of Influence.
Cuthand, who lives in Saskatoon, has inspired future artists at USask, where she recently served as Indigenous Artist-in-Residence through a new program of the University Art Galleries and Collection. While in residency on campus, she introduced students, alumni, faculty, staff and others to beading through informal drop-in lessons in various USask locations, including the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, the Arts Building and the Health Sciences Building.
Cuthand has been a mentor to many young artists over the years; for example, she taught art and art history at First Nations University of Canada for more than two decades, demonstrating traditional beading alongside contemporary art media. She has also been an advisor and board member at TRIBE Inc., Canada’s first Indigenous artist-run organization, and has collaborated with curators at AKA artist-run and the Red Shift Gallery.
During Indigenous Achievement Week at USask in 2019, Cuthand and fellow USask alumna Vanessa Hyggen (BA’17) worked on a project called mîkisak ikwa asiniyak ǀ Beads and Stone ǀ Lii rasaad aykwa lii rosh (written in Cree, English and Michif). Using beadwork and architectural stone, the artists’ work blended materials and traditions to map emergent processes of Indigenization. The piece—a broken slab of stone joined together with resin and beadwork—is now permanently installed on a wall at the top of the Arts Building ramp.
"Ruth’s work has effected the national arts community in immeasurable ways and will continue to do so," said moore. "This material support and national recognition (through the GGArts) can only further guarantee that. It is an accolade she deserves in every possible way."