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Visual and performance artist wins Governor General's Award

Tanya Mars has won a Governor General's Award for artistic achievement in visual and media arts. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Ailsa Ferguson

Tanya Mars, a senior lecturer and program supervisor in visual and performing arts in the Department of Humanities at U of T Scarborough, has won a Governor General’s Award for artistic achievement in visual and media arts.

Mars is among the six winners from across Canada to receive this prestigious award, the Canada Council announced today. Governor General Michaëlle Jean will present this year’s awards at a ceremony at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall on Friday.

Cited as one of Canada’s most innovative multidisciplinary artists, Mars has been active in the Canadian alternative art scene since the early 1970s. Her dramatic, humorous and satirical works -- ranging from performance through to sculpture and video -- have influenced an entire generation of artists in a career spanning some 30 years. She is a mentor to many emerging artists as an artist, teacher, curator and editor. A founder of Powerhouse in Montreal in 1973, one of the first feminist art collectives in Canada, she was also editor of Parallelogramme from 1976 to 1989 and co-edited the definitive Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women (2005). To view some of her work, click here.

“It’s a great honour and it’s very humbling,” said Mars, a feminist multidisciplinary performance and video artist, “particularly in my esoteric little field. I think, too, it’s really good for my field to have it acknowledged in this way. I see it as recognition of a lifelong work.”

Mars said she is honoured and excited about the upcoming events. “It will be a great deal of fun to be with the other laureates who are from all over the country and from different disciplines and backgrounds and to celebrate the arts.”

Among the celebratory events is an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada featuring all the artists. The curator, Josée-Britanie Mallet, selected Pure Virtue from Mars’ body of work. The central image is Mars breathing fire as Queen Elizabeth I. “It’s a sort of cabaret performance with text that’s been appropriated from Shakespeare and 16th-century medical practitioners and from popular culture, film and history,” Mars said.

She reconstructed the performance to make a videotape to be shown at the exhibition along with the costume and a blown up George Whiteside photo of her breathing fire on top of a building, taken to grace the inaugural cover of a now defunct magazine TO. The official opening of the exhibition is March 27, followed by the awards ceremony the next day in Rideau Hall’s ballroom.

“My main interest is to make narratives that put women at the centre as opposed to the periphery. I’m trying to create images, strong images and positive images, of women,” she said in describing her work. “I feel very strongly about being recognized as a feminist, I’m not ashamed of being a feminist and I’m not buying into the backlash of anti-feminism. I think I’ll beat the feminist drum until the day I die. While some of my work my work may not be directly didactic or directly about feminism, I think it is always about making strong images about women.” But she added, “I like to have a healthy dash of humour. So I like to poke fun at my own political dogma and I think it’s important to laugh at yourself. If there were three words that would summarize my interests they would be women, power and humour.”

Professor Franco Vaccarino, vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough, is justifiably proud of Mars’ honour.

“On behalf of the entire campus community, I congratulate Tanya Mars on receiving the Governor General’s award for artistic achievement in visual and media arts,” he said. “This national recognition of her status as one of the most innovative and interdisciplinary visual and performance artists in the country is well deserved. We are delighted for her and are proud that her immense talent is being recognized nationally.”

The Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts are Canada’s foremost distinctions for excellence in visual and media arts. Created in June 1999 and presented for the first time in March 2000, the awards recognize distinguished career achievement in the visual and media arts by Canadian artists as well as outstanding contributions through voluntarism, philanthropy, board governance, community outreach or professional activities. Up to eight awards are available annually.

The six winners of artistic achievement awards in visual and media arts this year are from across Canada. They are: Kenojuak Ashevak, (Nunavut); Serge Guguere (Quebec City); Michel Goulet (Montreal); Alex Janvier (Cold Lake, Alberta), Tanya Mars (Toronto); and Eric Metcalfe (Vancouver).

Images of the winners and their works can be downloaded from the Canada Council web site at

© University of Toronto Scarborough