Four Fine Arts recipients in Distinguished Alumni Awards

The annual Distinguished Alumni Awards celebrate the remarkable achievements of UVic graduates in three different categories: the Presidents’ Alumni Awards, the Emerging Alumni Awards and the Indigenous Community Alumni Awards. This year, Fine Arts has four recipients honoured in two of those categories.

Presidents’ Alumni Award: Maureen Gruben

Tuktoyaktuk-born and -based Presidents’ Alumni Award recipient Maureen Gruben (Visual Arts BFA, 2012) is an Inuvialuk artist who’s passionate about bringing awareness to the Arctic environment through her art. A mature student and mother when she came to UVic, her works incorporate an array of materials from polar bear fur, beluga intestines and seal skin to vinyl, Styrofoam, bubble wrap and metallic tape, linking daily life in the western Arctic and global environmental concerns. Gruben’s art has been exhibited across North America and Europe, and in 2021 she was long-listed for the Sobey Award, considered Canada’s most prestigious art award for emerging artists.

When asked how her experiences at UVic contributed to her success, Gruben says “UVic was where I was really introduced to contemporary art and performance art. That introduction alone opened up so many ideas, doors, new ways of thinking and understanding that was not so traditional. It made me work outside a lot in the environment and not so much in the gallery space. It was really huge for me.”

And what’s her advice to a younger person who is possibly uncertain about their future?

“They just need to get out there and try and explore and find out what their passions are because most people don’t know early in life,” she says. “You have to go and try a few different things before you figure out what you like.”

Read more about Maureen Gruben, including the differences between living in Tuktoyaktuk and Victoria

Emerging Alumni Award: Taiwo Afolabi

Taiwo Afolabi (Applied Theatre D Phil, 2020) has dedicated his life to using theatre as a tool for social change. A prolific scholar and an applied theatre practitioner, the Nigerian-born Afolabi researches, teaches and creates participatory theatre as a means of community engagement to explore themes of education, migration, displacement, climate change, inclusion and diversity.

After graduating from UVic, Afolabi began his tenure-track position at the University of Regina’s Theatre Department where he is an assistant professor; he currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Socially Engaged Theatre, and is the founder and director of the Centre for Socially Engaged Theatre (C-SET).

His research interests lie in the areas of applied theatre and policing, social justice, decolonization, art leadership and management, migration and the ethics of conducting arts-based research. Taiwo is a senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa) and the founding artistic director of Theatre Emissary International. His academic studies combined with lived experience of issues of race, equity and inclusion have made him a much sought-after speaker, writer, teacher and faculty member.

While his professional accomplishments are many, he’s most proud of the connections he’s be able to make, the relationships he’s built and the opportunities to engage with people. “Whether it’s in devising a play in the community, writing a paper or doing a workshop, it’s ultimately about the people I’ve been able to touch and who have touched my own life,” he says.

Read more about Taiwo Afolabi, including his favourite memory of being a UVic student

Emerging Alumni Award: Sarah Jim

Sarah Jim (Visual Arts BFA, 2019) is a visual artist of mixed ancestry from the small village of Tseycum in W̱SÁNEĆ. She works in the field of environmental restoration. Her creations reflect and advocate for the beautiful territory that the W̱SÁNEĆ have stewarded since time immemorial. Her art has been displayed across southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands and garnered numerous awards.

A common thread throughout Jim’s work—which includes a territorial acknowledgement plaque for a public library, T-shirt designs, street banners, multiple murals around the territory and native plant signs at the Horticulture Center of the Pacific and UVic’s community garden—is her desire to use art to create awareness and celebrate the historic and ongoing relationship between the W̱SÁNEĆ people and the land, sea and sky.

She says she’s most proud of merging the field of environmental restoration with her artistic practice. “At the very end of my UVic time, I started working in the field of environmental restoration and falling in love with the native plants, foods and medicines we have here and Indigenous ways of being,” she explains. “In my very last painting course, I made this piece that was all native plants with Coast Salish elements, and I was really happy with it, and my teacher said that it was the best thing I made all year and I should have been doing this the whole time. That was a really big turning point for me and my career.”

Her advice to younger people uncertain about their futures? “Just take a chance, because you never know where you’re going to end up. That’s essentially what I did. I started doing markets. I had the audacity to try to sell my things, and a lot of my friends and family supported me. And then even strangers were supporting me, too. Put yourself out there and don’t be too shy because people are going to judge you no matter what, so you might as well just do it.”

Read more about Sarah Jim, including the best advice she was ever given

photo: Simon Pauly

Emerging Alumni Award: Josh Lovell

Barely in his 30s, Victora-born Josh Lovell (Performance BMus, 2015) is already a major player in the international classical music scene. Described by the Guardian as “a handsome-sounding tenor with a warm, liquid voice and easy high notes,” he studied at UVic’s School of Music from 2010 to 2014 before attending the University of Michigan on a full scholarship to complete his Masters of Voice Performance.

The winner of numerous awards, Lovell is currently an ensemble member of the renowned Vienna State Opera house Wiener Staatsoper. He has performed all over Europe at prestigious venues such as Teatro alla Scala Milan, the Glyndebourne Festival (UK), Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bolshoi Theatre, helping raise the profile of Canada on the international stage. He also maintains an important connection to his home, returning to perform with the Vancouver Symphony, Pacific Opera and the Victoria Symphony, where he continues to inspire future generations of performers.

He felt his time at UVic “rounded me as an individual: it wasn’t completely focused on my studies. There was time to make connections with colleagues and friends, and attend the many events that were going on around the campus. UVic really felt like a community while I studied there. Even though I grew up in Victoria, UVic felt like a different city, another country. It was a zone all unto itself where I felt welcome to take part in all that was offered and challenged to learn all that I could.”

But he hesitates to name any one achievement of which he is particularly proud. “As your experience builds with every single performance, so develops your voice and artistry. Because of this, there is no single defining moment of arrival; there is no exact moment of ‘making it.’ All you can hope for is that you develop well enough to be noticed by the most famous companies in order to be hired by them.”

But Lovell does consider himself “very fortunate” to have been able to perform at a very high level since finishing his education. “This entire journey goes back to UVic,” he says. “None of this would have been possible without my teacher, Benjamin Butterfield.”

Read more about Josh Lovell, including the skills he feels are essential to his career

Nominate a remarkable grad!

The UVic Distinguished Alumni Awards celebrate the remarkable achievements of UVic graduates. Nominations for the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open now through Oct. 13, 2023. You can nominate an outstanding alum here.

Explore all 16 of UVic’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients.

Creating a Certain Kind of Space: Charles Campbell

When the Faculty of Fine Arts announced the creation of a new annual donor-funded lecture series focused on activism and the arts, the selection committee were faced with an onerous task: who to select as the first guest? While a number of options were presented, the committee ultimately—and unanimously—endorsed internationally acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell as the inaugural speaker in the Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture Series.

Jamaica-born but Victoria-based, Charles Campbell is an artist, writer, curator and educator whose artworks—including sculptures, paintings, sonic installations and performances—explore aspects of Black history, especially as experienced in the Caribbean region. The recipient of the Shadbolt Foundation’s 2022 VIVA Award and the 2020 City of Victoria Creative Builder Award, his practice animates the future imaginaries possible in the wake of slavery and colonization.

As such, Campbell is an ideal choice to kick off a series focused on how the arts can be a catalyst for change in advancing the understanding and goals of various social justice topics. His March 23 talk, “Sometimes in the Middle of the Story: Art & Changing Fictions,” will explore how his work examines and disrupts the fictions embedded in our colonial reality.

photo: Lia Crowe (Boulevard Magazine)

Working for social change

When asked if he felt he was a good fit as the inaugural speaker for this series, Campbell pauses before giving a characteristically thoughtful response. “There are a lot people doing good things in the community with regards to activism,” he says. “My work is important in the realm of social change: it doesn’t always strictly meet the criteria of what I’d consider activist work, but it’s definitely in dialogue with that space.”

From his perspective, what’s the difference? “I think of activist-based art as engaging with a very specific outcome: we want something to happen in how people think, or the social context we’re working in—and the more specific that is, the more effective it can be in terms of activism.”

Campbell feels his more socially engaged practice is about “exploring our political and social realities . . . I think my own work is more about creating a certain kind of space rather than leaning towards a specific outcome.”

Shifting perspectives

By way of example, he points to “Time Catcher”, his recent commission for the Victoria International Airport. Installed overhead in the passenger departure lounge, “Time Catcher” features a series of three-sided suspended vessels invoking concepts of not only time and movement but also ecological and cultural memory; additionally, the text of Octavia Butler’s “Paradise” is also inscribed in Morse code on each surface, acknowledging both our connection to home and the forces of change motivating people’s global movements.

“That airport piece is an interesting example, as it’s made for all kinds of audiences who come through that space,” he explains. “But one of those audiences is Black people coming into Victoria: the city has historically identified itself as an extension of a little British town—there’s no public or visible space for Black people—so that quote is a marker to say, ‘hey, we’re here.’ That’s just a small example of how I’m trying to create that kind of a space, and a little bit of a shift of people’s perspectives on how a space can work.”

Similarly, his upcoming solo exhibition An Ocean to Livity—running April 15-June 20 at the Surrey Art Gallery—foregrounds Black breath as a source of power, repository of memory and site of connection. He touched on similar themes with his contribution to the 2022 group exhibit The Chorus Is Speaking at the Campbell River Art Gallery, which explored how people experience identities of Blackness in Canada.

“My work in that show was really about breath, about what allows us to breathe,” he explains. “That piece really came out of the experiences of 2020, about Black Lives Matter and the murder of Geroge Floyd.”

Exploring Black identities

Following up on her 2022 Massey Lecture series and subsequent essay collection, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, celebrated author and UVic Writing alumna Esi Edugyan recently spoke out against the idea of a “Black monolith” and encouraged people to acknowledge how complex Canadian identities of Blackness can be—an idea with which Campbell definitely agrees.

“I’m totally with Esi on that one,” he says. “There are a large number of Black identities, and some of them take up a larger space in the cultural field than others. But for a lot of us—specifically in Canada, and more specifically on the West Coast—it really fragments quite quickly. But then the question becomes, how to define that space within the context of the multiplicity of experience and points of view?”

As a Jamaica-born artist on Vancouver Island, that’s a nuanced dialogue with which he is constantly engaged. “I’m very well-connected with the Caribbean arts movement and a lot of my exhibition opportunities have come through that—just not on this side of the continent, since Canada’s massive Caribbean population lives back east,” he explains.

“Here on the West Coast, it’s more about being a capital-B Black artist . . . yet there isn’t one origin story for the Black community here, so there’s an attempt at a kind of pan-Blackness. But I think you can intentionally create more solidarity through different notions of Blackness—it’s not about common identity, it’s about consciously working to create understanding and commonality.”

The inaugural Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture runs at 7:30pm Thursday, March 23, in room 103 of UVic’s Fine Arts building. This is a free public talk, but seating is limited. 

About the Lehan Family

Meet brother and sister Mel Lehan and Freda Knott: committed West Coast activists and community builders . . . and now, thanks to an anonymous donor, the named recipients of a lecture series established in 2022. Each year, the Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture showcases a distinguished guest presenting ideas on how the arts is a catalyst for change in advancing the understanding and goals of various social justice topics.

This short video tells you more about their family’s commitment to activism and the arts, and how Mel and Freda have worked to build community and make changes in their home communities of Vancouver and Victoria. 

Guest artist Hawksley Workman talks songwriting and the music industry

Singer-songwriters and musicians hoping to break into the industry won’t want to miss two unique events with acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter, Hawksley Workman. Set to visit the University of Victoria on March 15-16, these events will highlight Hawksley’s eclectic mix of indie rock, pop, and folk music, his electrifying stage presence, as well as his experience in the music industry as a producer, composer and recording artist.

In a keynote singer-songwriter event on March 15, Hawksley will give a short performance followed by a chat about his song-writing process and techniques. The discussion will delve into Hawksley’s approaches to cultivating melodic surprise, colour and contrast, harmonic contour, and form. Students from the UVic School of Music will then have the opportunity to perform an original song and receive constructive critique from Hawksley.

DIY Musician roundtable

roundtable on March 16 will offer an insightful discussion on what it takes to thrive as a self-produced musician in Canada. Hawksley will be joined by industry leaders from the Victoria community including Merrie Klazek (UVic Associate Professor, trumpeter), Adrian Dolan (composer/producer/arranger, and member of The Bills), and Laura Mina Mitic (vocalist with Carmanah). Topics will include mastering your craft, marketing and promotion, community engagement, and aspects of mental, physical, and financial health.

While visiting UVic, Hawksley will also guide students in a pro-level studio recording session with a focus on how to be efficient and effective in the various studio roles, from producer to session musician. School of Music students Brendan Wong and Olivia Jackson, who perform together as the duo Actual Human People, have been selected to be recorded and will leave with a completed studio recording of one of their tracks. (This event is not open to the public.)

A mainstay of the Canadian music scene for over two decades

Hawksley is a two-time JUNO Award-winning and Gold Record certified singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. A mainstay of the Canadian music and arts scene for over two decades, Hawksley boasts a catalogue of 16 releases, showcasing his signature blend of anthemic folk and show-stopping vocals. Hawksley’s touring career has seen him play over a thousand shows worldwide. He’s headlined prestigious venues like Massey Hall in Toronto and The Olympia in Paris. As a producer, his fingerprints grace releases by JUNO and Polaris Prize nominees and winners like Tegan and Sara, Sarah Slean, Serena Ryder, Hey Rosetta!, and Great Big Sea. He’s also penned melodies with a myriad of artists, from Oscar award-winning Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) to the late French rock icon Johnny Hallyday.

Symposium explores Gendered Threads of Globalization

Who makes our clothing? How has the shift from artisanal production to “fast fashion” over the last 150 years devalued women’s textile labor in Asia? How are heritage textile/garment traditions across Asia being preserved and revived by laborers and the organizations that support them?

Hosted by Art History & Visual Studies professor Melia Belli Bose, Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th century Textile Crossings in Asia Pacific (GToG) unites scholars, activists and artists from across North America, Asia and Europe for a 3-day symposium dedicated to these issues.

All GToG events are free and open to the public, include panels (Fri-Sat, March 10-12, in room A103 of UVic’s Fine Arts building), a screening of Cathy Stevulak’s award-winning documentary THREADS (5:30pm Friday, same location) and a textile-based performance by visual artist Monica Jahan Bose (12:30 Sunday, March 12 in the lobby of UVic’s David Lam Auditorium).

Can’t make it in person? Register for the livestream here.

A scene from Cathy Stevulak’s documentary THREADS

About GToG

Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th c. Textile Crossings in Asia gathers specialists from a range of academic disciplines and artistic/artisanal practices to discuss intersections of gender, textiles/garments/fashion, labour and heritage across Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, and the diaspora) during the long 20th century (ie: late 19th century to present).

GToG participants will investigate topics like

  • heritage textiles/garments—their demise and revival
  • gendered labor in the fashion industry
  • confluences of identity (regional, communal, ethnic, religious), domesticity and agency
  • activist art that critiques the global garment industry
  • the evolution, consumption, appropriation and display of heritage textiles/garments.

Expect plenty of stimulating conversation for Asian textiles enthusiasts!

Keynote address

Friday’s keynote speech features Ashoka Fellow Judy Frater on “Threads of Identity in Kutch 2022: Gender, Value, Creativity and the Marketplace” (4:20pm in Fine Arts 103). Judy Frater is steeped in the world of contemporary textiles of Kutch, India. Residing in Kutch for 30 years, she co-founded and operated Kala Raksha, a cooperative for women embroiderers, established the Kala Raksha Textile Museum, founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. the first design school for traditional artisans, and reinvented the school as Somaiya Kala Vidya.

A scene from Monica Jahan Bose’s WRAPture

Live performance

Sunday will feature the work of Orion Visiting Artist Monica Jahan Bose, a Bangladeshi-American artist and activist whose work spans painting, film, photography, printmaking, performance, and interdisciplinary projects.

Her short film, WRAPture: A Public Art Project runs at 11:30am (Fine Arts building room 103), followed by a live textile-based performance in the lobby of the David Lam Auditorium (MacLaurin Building C-wing, room A144).

WRAPture follows a climate justice art project from Washington DC’s low-income Anacostia neighborhood to Barobaishdia—a remote Bangladeshi island on the frontlines of climate change—as Jahan Bose leads a dozen women farmers and over 200 Washingtonians to co-create 65 climate-themed saris, which wrap five Washington buildings. While they work on the saris, the participants recite poetry, sing, and dance, creating a trans-border community. The film includes rare footage and testimony of the impacts of climate change on coastal women farmers and the power of art to bring about change.

Timeless classic Medea gets a timely update with Mojada

“[Judy] Caranto is marvellous … ably capturing [a] mix of drama & humour with authenticity & charisma”
Times Colonist (photo: Megan Farrell)

While the Phoenix Theatre’s season opener Spring Awakening had its origins in a play which debuted in 1906, their closing production Mojada takes its inspiration from even further back in theatrical history: Euripides’ Medea, first produced nearly 2,500 years ago. Yet Mojada is as modern as today’s headlines, blending the ancient Greek family tragedy with Mexican folklore and the bitter reality of America’s immigration system.

“All stories are universal, but what makes them so universal are the specifics,” explains guest direct Carmen Aguirre. “Mojada is very specifically set in contemporary East LA with undocumented Mexican folks—but its theme of exile and the violence of assimilation makes it universal.”

Keeping it fierce

If Aguirre’s name rings a bell, it may be from her international bestseller and CBC Canada Reads winner Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. However, you may also know her as a busy actor, playwright and Siminovitch Prize finalist, who is both artistic associate of new play development at Ontario’s Stratford Festival and a core artist with Vancouver’s acclaimed Electric Company Theatre (co-founded by former classmate Kevin Kerr, UVic’s current Writing chair).

But as a director, Aguirre is thrilled to be offering the Canadian premiere of Mojada—indeed, it was her first choice of production when she was approached about directing at the Phoenix. (Ironically, she has written her own adaptation of Medea, whose debut has been repeatedly delayed due to COVID.)

“I love directing because it’s ultimately your vision, your interpretation of a script,” she says. “How do you communicate your ideas to the actors, the design team and, most importantly, to the audience? My approach—certainly for this script—is to really focus on the text with the actors.”

“[Carmen] Aguirre’s direction is clear and sure-footed” —Times Colonist 
(photo: Alejandra Aguirre)

“A must watch … wonderfully done” —The Martlet
Ximena Garduño Rodriguez & Rowan Watts in Mojada (Megan Farrell)

Latinx representation

Written by her friend, LA-born Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro, Mojada has already engaged audiences in LA, Off-Broadway and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Luis specializes in adapting Greek tragedies and setting them in East LA with Mexican characters,” she explains. “‘Mojada’ translates as ‘wetback’, a racial slur against Latinx folks, which actually refers to undocumented people who have had to cross the Rio Grande river into the US from Mexico . . . thus they have a ‘wet back’.”

Co-founder of the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition, Aguirre is a fierce proponent for Latinx cultural representation—which was also the subject of her second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1 and My Other Roles Since the Revolution.

“There are three Latinx folks involved in this project, and the actor playing Medea is Mexican, so they absolutely understand who these characters are and what they’ve been through,” she says. “The other actors in it are also racialized folks who, while not Latinx, do come from immigrant families, so they understand issues around exile and assimilation.”

Making positive change

No stranger to directing theatre students (“they’re so excited, so open and work so hard!”), Aguirre is also pleased to see positive developments in theatre schools since her days in Vancouver’s Studio 58 in the early ’90s.

“There have been big changes in regard to what’s acceptable for students these days,” she says. “We never had anything like an intimacy coordinator, for example . . . now, a director has to really be in tune with the care needed to keep their actors safe. And when I was in school, everyone was white—the playwrights, the faculty, the designers, the directors . . . all white. We had a student body of about 50 people, and less than 10 percent were racialized folks. That was really challenging for me.”

For an artist who has based her career on making positive change in the industry she loves, Mojada offers the chance to bring so many of her passions together: a timely story, engaging script, strong cast, talented designers and a director who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

“I took the opportunity to bring the research to them—breaking down the story, giving them historical background and cultural context . . . my cast understands what a great opportunity this is to work on such a great script,” she concludes.

“Well worth seeing … a powerful take on an ancient story” —Times Colonist 
Julia Patterson in Mojada (Megan Farrell)

Mojada runs March 16-25 at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. Tickets range from $16-$30 (depending on date & performance time) via 250-721-8000 or in person at the Phoenix Box Office.