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Ursula Johnson (b.1980)

Ursula Johnson

Installation view of Ursula Johnson, Museological Grand Hall (detail), 2013–14, twelve hand-cut and sandblasted Acrylite vitrines, dimensions variable, in the exhibition Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember) at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, 2014, photograph by Steve Farmer

Ursula Johnson is a member of the Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation on Cape Breton Island (Unama’ki in Mi’kmaw) and grew up speaking Mi’kmaw at home. Her family, including her great-grandmother, renowned basket maker Caroline Gould (1919–2011), is well known as cultural leaders in their community. Johnson spent her early working life as an activist and was a participant in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations, where she was involved in creating that institution’s first Indigenous Youth Caucus.


Installation view of Ursula Johnson, Moose Fence, 2017, ungulate gate, lumber, fencing, lighting, and wallpaper, dimensions variable, in the 2017 Sobey Art Award exhibition at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, photograph by Natasha Hirt.

However, she felt art could further her social and cultural goals and she decided to pursue art studies in Halifax; since then, she has made Halifax her home. She graduated from NSCAD University in 2006. In 2014, the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery mounted her solo exhibition Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember), which toured to institutions across Canada through 2018. That exhibition directly addressed the museological treatment of Indigenous artifacts, so many of which are locked away in vaults. Her sculptures, museum-style plinths with Plexiglas vitrines etched with images of baskets and Mi’kmaw language texts outlining instructions for their construction, gave potent meaning to the phrase “making something from nothing.”


Johnson’s work blends sculpture, performance, and activism, and much of it is based in her understanding of the concept Netukulimk, which, she says, “is self-sustainability through responsibility, the impacts of harvesting, or the art market, or resources with naturally made objects or Indigenous objects.


Johnson was a recipient of a REVEAL Indigenous Art Award from the Hnatyshyn Foundation in the spring of 2017, and in the fall of that year she won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award, the most prestigious award for contemporary art in Canada. She was the first Atlantic Canadian to have done so. Johnson’s work Moose Fence, 2017, won the 2019 Nova Scotia Masterworks Award and was acquired by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2021.


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