Freya Björg Olafson, an assistant professor in the Department of Dance in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) at York University, has been selected as a winner of the National Art Gallery of Canada’s 2020 Sobey Art Award. Considered the pre-eminent prize for Canadian artists 40 and under, the award is designed to celebrate and provide significant financial support for exciting young artists.
Conventionally, the award consists of a total of $240,000 in prize money given to one winner ($100,000), with four finalists receiving $25,000 and artists on a longlist receiving $2,000 each. Given the limited opportunities artists have for generating income during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s fund has instead been divided equally with each of the 25 longlist finalists receiving a $25,000 prize.
“I am grateful to Video Pool Media Art Center for the nomination and honoured to be included in this outstanding selection of artists,” Olafson said. “My jaw dropped when I received the news.”
The acknowledgement from the visual arts realm is meaningful for Olafson, who noted that her selection of a blackbox theatre for her work with technology and performance sometimes sets her work outside of the visual arts conversation.
Olafson was also enthused about the decision to adjust the award’s format this year.
“The move to disperse the award and support artists across the country is an initiative that acknowledges the loss of work, residencies, exhibitions and projects for many artists as a result of COVID-19,” she said. “This shift in the award structure also reinforces that excellence in artistic practice might not be best assessed through a competition, as the valuation of artwork is subjective and the structure of awarding a single artist at the end of the process establishes an unnecessary hierarchy.”
AMPD Dean Sarah Bay-Cheng praised Olafson’s accomplishment. “It’s always exciting to see colleagues recognized for their outstanding work, but Freya’s work across live performance and digital media is especially important right now,” she explained. “As we all adjust to the current circumstances, I find it energizing to know that great work will continue to happen in AMPD no matter what challenges confront us.”
Described as a pioneer in Canada’s dance community, Olafson is an intermedia artist who works with video, audio, painting and performance. Her work engages with identity and the body, as informed by technology and the Internet. Olafson’s work has been presented and exhibited around the world.