In the late 1970s, Ken Lum was introduced to contemporary art. Realizing that art was much more than traditional illustration, painting or graphic arts was a turning point in his life.
“I grew up with the idea that if you could draw a horse, which I can, then you’re an artist. And if you can’t, you shouldn’t be one,” says Lum, who is internationally recognized for his conceptual and representational art in a number of media, including painting, sculpture and photography.
That notion was dispelled when he realized many of his fellow students in his art classes could not draw a horse. “That was world changing with respect to my conceptions of art,” he said.
The late 1970s was a time when there were more artists of colour, and more women in the art world, as well as more varied mediums, Lum noted. “Photography, even though it was about 140 years old, was seen as one of the most important of the new media. Until then, it was not fully accepted as a medium that was equal to the other categories of contemporary art.”
Lum, a Vancouver native who is the Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design in Philadelphia, received the 2023 Scotiabank Photography Award on May 4 in Toronto.
“Congratulations to Ken Lum, winner of the Scotiabank Photography Award. His expansive body of art, which includes public installations around the world, invites viewers to look at the world they live in from a different perspective,” said Laura Curtis Ferrera, Chief Marketing Officer, Scotiabank.
You Can’t See Me, 2022, Archival inks on archival paper on enameled aluminum, 196cm x 257cm x 5.5cm
“At Scotiabank, we believe the arts have the power to inspire and evolve our communities and our society in positive ways, and we are very proud to help elevate the careers of some of Canada’s most distinguished artists through this award.”
The annual award, co-founded by Scotiabank and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, comes with a $50,000 cash prize, a solo Primary Exhibition at the 2024 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, and a book of the artist’s work published and distributed worldwide by German publisher Steidl. The finalists — Toronto-based Sandra Brewster and Chris Curreri — each received $10,000.
The winner was selected by a jury of pre-eminent members of the Canadian arts community — Burtynsky, artist and jury chair; Stéphane Aquin, Director, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Dr. Kenneth Montague, art collector and curator; and Gaëlle Morel, Exhibition Curator at the Toronto Metropolitan University Image Centre.
Anna May Wong; 2022; Canon LED curable inks, mirror, aluminum; 137.2cm x 137.2cm
Lum’s accomplishments include an extensive list of exhibitions, both as artist and curator; co-founding and editing the Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art; and the publication of his essays under the title Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life 1991 – 2018 in 2020 by Concordia University Press. In 2020, he also wrote The Cook, a screenplay about Chinese contract labourers in the 19th century, which is under development in Hollywood. Since the mid-1990s, he has worked on numerous permanent public art commissions including for the cities of Vienna, Rotterdam, St. Louis, Mo., Toronto and Vancouver, often dealing with individual and social identity formation in the context of historical trauma and how the events are remembered.
Lum holds an honorary doctorate from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Canada Governor-General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2020. In 2017, he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Rebecca Rosenberg Sings Bye Bye Blackbird; 1993; Laminated c-print on Sintra, lacquer, enamel, aluminum; 304cm x 172cm
In high school, Lum was often called on by teachers to design the yearbook cover, sports day banners and other event posters. He also worked as an illustrator for the British Columbia Government Ministry of the Environment and the Vancouver Library Public Library System while doing his undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser.
In 1980, set to graduate with a Bachelor of Science, Lum realized this was not the career he wanted. “I didn’t want to be in a lab coat for the rest of my life. I was already accepted to several graduate schools in science, and I thought it’s now or never,” he said. Lum received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia in 1985.
Having spent the ensuing years searching for ways to express his “desires and dissatisfactions with the world,” Lum still sees himself as an artist ill at ease, a feeling he says comes from his discovery of a disconnect between the ideals of art and the reality of the system.
“This anxious disposition has impelled me to make art, work in public art, write essays on art and the broader culture, and curate exhibitions on historical themes interesting to me,” he wrote in the application made by nominator Camille Georgeson-Usher for the award.
Lum’s work often combines photographic images and text, sculptural components, and ideas about language to address the individual’s place in society while investigating race and class distinctions, which he hopes resonates with those who see his art.
They Have No Idea How Hard I Work, 2021, Digital print on archival paper, 198.1cm x 259.1cm
“I hope people are emotionally affected by my work. …that the process of identification reveals something about the way they look at the world, all the better if what they glean makes them think about the world from a different perspective,” he said.
“I want them to become much more curious, open to the world, and even empathetic to the presence of others and not prejudge the world they themselves are moving through every day.”
As for winning the award, Lum said it was an honour just to be shortlisted. “The rest is just a difference of money. That’s important, but it’s never been what drove me. It’s nice to be recognized, if only to acknowledge that I picked myself up several times and I’m still doing work, and people like what I do.”
Read about last year’s winner, Jin-me Yoon.
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