Debajehmujig’s Joseph Osawabine, right, and a group of staff and board members accept the Arts Organization Award from Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Eleanor McMahon, left, at the 2017 Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts on Oct. 30 in Toronto.

By Rick Garrick

TORONTO – The Debajehmujig Storytellers was honoured with the Arts Organization Award at the 2017 Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts on Oct. 30 in Toronto. Cree artist Kent Monkman and visual artist Brian Rideout were also honoured with the Individual Arts Award and the Emerging Artist of the Year Award during the 11th annual awards ceremony, which celebrates the extraordinary achievements that strengthen Ontario’s culture sector.

“We were the first theatre group to be invited into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to do an exhibition called Audge’s Place, back in 2003,” says Joe Osawabine, artistic director with Debajehmujig Storytellers. “They asked us to give patrons an experience of what it might be like to live on a reserve in northern Ontario.”

Osawabine says the contents of his mother’s house, including her furniture, paintings, stove, fridge and doors, were moved into a replica of her house that was built in the AGO for the exhibition.

“And we just lived there for three weeks,” Osawabine says. “People came in and they hung out with us and they ate corn soup and we talked about the art and we talked about what it is like to live here. It was cool.”

Osawabine says the Debajehmujig staff took turns living in the exhibition.

“It was the first time that food was allowed in the AGO,” Osawabine says. “You can’t go to Audge’s house and not have a bowl of corn soup. That is what makes it Audge’s Place.”

Osawabine says the Audge’s Place exhibition won the Best Education award at the AGO.

“People would be coming in and they would be looking around and saying: ‘What’s so special about this. My mom has those cupboards,’” Osawabine says. “And I’m like: ‘Yeah, that’s the point. What were you expecting.’ So people were coming in with preconceived notions and were disappointed to see it was just like their mom’s house.”

Osawabine adds that Debajehmujig opened the Creation Centre in 2009 after using a variety of spaces across the community to create their productions since being established in 1984 in West Bay.

“We’re the only Indigenous arts organization in the country who owns and operates their own facility,” Osawabine says. “We have always strived to tell the best stories, to put our heart and soul and our blood, sweat and tears into the work. We never settled, we always felt that the work could be better and we always felt that we have not completed our most important work. Our most important work was always the next work that was in front of us.”

Osawabine says Debajehmujig was also the first company from Canada to be invited to the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

“We’ve been back for two years with our project The Global Savages,” Osowabine says. “We performed at the Commonwealth Games in 2012, where our project won the Spirit of the Commonwealth award. It was the project, out of all the projects that were funded, that most exemplified the values of the Commonwealth.”

Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Eleanor McMahon congratulated the award recipients during the Oct. 30 awards ceremony at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.

“The passion you bring to your work inspires us and fuels the extraordinary cultural life of our communities,” McMahon says. “Artistic expression encourages thought, sparks creativity and challenges us to look at things differently. It’s my hope that these awards will shine a spotlight on the wonderful work that the talented laureates and finalists do.”

The award recipients were selected by a jury of artists and arts professionals.