Artist Dana Claxton wins B.C.’s top art award, the Audain Prize

Multi-disciplinary artist Dana Claxton’s practice “investigates Indigenous beauty, the body, the socio-political and the spiritual”

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Dana Claxton, a UBC professor and Indigenous multidisciplinary artist, has been awarded the 2023 Audain Prize for Visual Art, the top art award in B.C.

“Dana Claxton is one of B.C.’s greatest artists,” says Michael Audain, chairman of the Audain Foundation. “Besides having an outstanding international reputation, Ms. Claxton has had a considerable influence on younger artists and her UBC art students.”

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Claxton said she’s “in a daze” after receiving the award.

“I was surprised and elated,” said Claxton, who receives $100,000 from the foundation. “It’s a beautiful phone call to get. It makes me think about everybody who has lifted me up over the last 30 to 40 years. Everybody who I’ve worked with, their generosity and their creativity, the paths they were forging.”

Claxton is a multidisciplinary artist who works in film, video, photography, single/multi-channel video installation and performance art. She is also the department head of the department of art history, visual art and theory at the University of B.C.

Asked how she decides which art form to work in, she said “intuition, impulse and then research.”

“You see the image and then you’ve got to make it,” said Claxton, an Indigenous artist who is a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation in Saskatchewan. “I get inspired by everyday life, I get inspired by spiritual practices, my own Lakota culture. I’m inspired by reconciliation, I’m inspired by this complex history we all share, we live in a treaty country. There’s a lot to be inspired by. I’m inspired by the beauty of the natural world.”

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She’s known for blending historical and contemporary themes in her art, “collapsing the historical, the ancient, the modern and the contemporary, and sometimes even the future.”

A good example is Buffalo Bone China, a multimedia work that includes a video showing scenes of buffalo galloping on the prairie, a bleached white bison skull and hands caressing china on a table.

Buffalo were slaughtered to near-extinction in the 19th century, literally killing off the food supply for Native people. Bizarrely, some of their bones were made into bone china in Britain.

“It’s incredible,” said Claxton. “While my own family was starving, the British were eating off the plates.”

Buffalo Bone China, single channel video, broken china, stanchions, by Dana Claxton. PNG

Claxton’s ancestors came to Canada from the U.S. with Sitting Bull in 1877. Her family settled in the Wood Mountain reserve, which is in a beautiful region near Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan.

The 64-year-old Claxton was born in Yorkton, Sask., grew up in Moose Jaw and moved to B.C. with her family when she was 11 years old. She credits her mother with her humanism and “teaching me how to see.”

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“There was a fellow (in Moose Jaw) who was a street person, and he had no legs,” she recounts. “He travelled about downtown on his homemade board with wheels, and he always had his little black glove that was so worn out in front of him. My mom would give me money to go put in his glove.

“You can imagine, you’re four/five/six years old, and I was terrified of him, because he was different than me. But I always had to give him money. Through that he was humanized. I saw him as a human being, and I would look forward to my mom giving me 25 cents to go put in his glove. She taught me how to see people.”

She got her first camera at age 16, but she said it was her experience at Spirit Song, the Native theatre group in Vancouver, that really helped her find her path creatively.

“In the ’80s, it was this place where all urban Indians who were creative went to,” she said. “We got theatre training, dance and music and script writing. I wrote my first script there, the Red Paper, which is referencing the White Paper, (Pierre) Trudeau’s White Paper (on Native people). I made it into an experimental film, and never stopped from there.”

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She hasn’t — her latest project is writing a script for a feature film with actor Sam Bob and Courtenay Crane.

“It’s a Vancouver story, and it’s wicked,” she said. “A beautiful Vancouver story from the mid-1970s of a young Salish man.”

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Headdress, Duratran print in light box, by Dana Claxton. PNG
Baby Boyz Gotta Indian Horse, by Dana Claxton. Photo by Handout /Vancouver Sun
Daddy’s Gotta New Ride, by Dana Claxton. Photo by Handout /Vancouver Sun
Cultural Belongings, LED firebox with trans-mounted chromogenic transparency, by Dana Claxton. PNG
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Artist Dana Claxton at her North Vancouver home on Sept. 23. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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