It’s the biggest award for which Alberta Indigenous visual artist Brittney Bear Hat has ever been nominated.
The 31-year-old Blackfoot and Cree woman was longlisted for the fourth annual New Generation Photography Award — an award established by the National Gallery of Canada for lens-based artists under 35 with a prize of $10,000 cash and a chance to be featured in exhibitions — on Feb. 18.
“It’s a huge honour just to be longlisted and to be thought of in this way because a lot of my practice isn’t really traditional photography,” she told Global News on Monday.
Bear Hat is one of two Alberta-based artists on the list of 24 nominees — the other being Lethbridge’s Angeline Simon.
Bear Hat is based in Mohkinstsis, choosing to call Calgary its Blackfoot name to honour her ancestor’s land.
“That’s why I’ve kind of let go a little bit and stopped referring to Calgary as its colonial name. I just wanted to line up my own work with the way that I’m feeling towards how I think about space,” she said.
Sharing simple moments with family
Initially, Bear Hat didn’t like having her culture intertwined so tightly with her photography.
“As I kept kind of pushing through, trying to make work that resonated with me, I just realized that it was these stories, it was these moments that I share with my family in really simple ways, and my culture and my history have always kind of been there,” she said, recalling her dad teaching her and her siblings how to swim in the Bow River.
The artist’s dad has a huge influence on her practice.
“He definitely is kind of like the heart that is behind my spirit in my work,” she said.
“Throughout my whole childhood, I remember [my dad] always having some kind of device to take photos with.”
Bear Hat uses what’s available to create, like handed-down photos, and sometimes opts for a “cheap point-and-shoot” camera. She calls her work simple, “not the greatest” photos that feature her family out on the land, spending time together.
“That’s how my dad always chose to relate to us as kids,” she said.
Bear Hat’s art is about returning to her home territory as an adult.
“I was trying to find myself, and I was trying to find a lot of grounding in these places. Once I saw that big lodge, I instantly was brought back to all of my childhood memories,” she said.
“I was just so excited to be back in a space that I remember.”
Her work isn’t limited to photos. Some installations feature everyday objects that have been handed down.
“They’re always these really kind of like mundane gifts, but because they have such purpose and such usefulness, that’s the language that my family chooses to use in gift-giving,” she said, mentioning the cast-iron pan her grandma gave her years ago.
Being relatable and reclaiming authority
Bear Hat wants to convey feelings anyone can relate to through her work.
“I’ve known quite a few people who grew up in rural areas of Alberta who are used to hunting and being out on the land… These are a lot of shared experiences, and I don’t think that they only belong to Indigenous people,” she said.
“When you’re out on the land, there is a bit of a spirituality.
“There’s a bit of this connection, and I think that’s worth a lot of space and a lot of time. I think a lot of people can relate to those things, whether they’re Indigenous or not. I think that can bring these communities closer.”
Bear Hat feels grounded through photography.
“There’s a lot of connection that I’m gaining through this whole practice,” she said.
“It’s helping me feel at home and find a lot of connection to my Indigenous people and it’s helping me reclaim a lot of authority that I didn’t have before.”
Award winners will be announced March 23.