Culture meets couture

The Chu Niikwän Artist Residency is a partnership between the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (KDCC), the Yukon Arts Centre and the Yukon Art Society. Now in its third year, the residency provides three visual artists with studio spaces in Whitehorse for three weeks. The residency culminates in an exhibit, Meeting by the currents, which finished showing at the KDCC on Dec. 2.

The Auntie Dress

Robyn McLeod’s dresses from her fashion collection, Dene Futurisms, are featured in this story, which is part of a series about the three Chu Niikwän residency artists and their work. McLeod is originally from Yellowknife. She is of Dene and Scottish descent and is a member of the Deh Gáh Got’įę First Nation in the Deh Cho Region. She represents the KDCC in the residency, but for COVID-related reasons, she participated remotely from Ross River.

McLeod has been sewing since she was very young. She recalls making herself little purses and mitts. When she was 12, she made a Babiche bag. Her inspiration comes primarily from her grandmothers, Celine Villeneuve of the Beaufort Delta region, and the late Florestine McLeod. McLeod’s interest in the Chu NiiKwän residency stemmed from her year at the School of Visual Arts in Dawson, where students exhibited their work at the completion of each project. She enjoyed showing her work, and wanted to do more of it.
“Once I heard about the residency–because I knew some people who had gone through it–I decided to apply on a whim, not thinking I would get accepted because there are so many amazing artists in the Yukon. I wanted to do some more exhibition work and showcase the collection I’ve been working on.”

McLeod was in the process of creating Dene Futurisms, which was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and Yukon Culture Quest. The collection was originally meant to be featured at the Adäka Cultural Festival last summer, but the event was cancelled. The residency provided her with another opportunity to complete the collection and showcase her work. McLeod had originally planned a project related to water systems in the Yukon for the residency. That idea didn’t pan out. Instead, McLeod’s attention returned to her collection. When a family member was ill, she started making a dress as part of her grieving process.

“[It was] just me in a grieving mode, because she was really sick at the time and when I had finished the dress, she had passed away that day. So I called it the Auntie Dress after her, in remembrance of her, because she was my Auntie.”
McLeod says that making the dress turned her grief into something beautiful and meaningful.
The Auntie dress was featured at the Wondercrawl event, which took place along the Whitehorse waterfront in September.
“I got it sent up by a plane from Ross River that day. By the time I got it into the garment bag I was shaking from so much adrenaline, trying to get it on time on the plane to Whitehorse.”

The Etandah Dress

McLeod wasn’t able to attend Wondercrawl, but it meant a lot to her that her dress was there.
“It was a pivotal moment for me because it was showcased to hundreds of people.”
McLeod’s stunning work can now be seen at the Chu Niikwän residency exhibit, Meeting by the Currents. She describes the pieces in her collection as “contemporary with a traditional twist.” They include The Auntie Dress, which is accessorized with a beaded headband. The dress is made from bold black-and-white striped upholstery fabric and incorporates bands of colourful ribbon and wolverine fur harvested in Fort McPherson.

A hanky dress entitled Etsu (pictured on top) is accompanied by a moose hide mask with tufted moose-hair flowers. For the floral design, McLeod used drawings by her paternal grandmother, Florestine McLeod. Tufting, she explains, is a family tradition.
“This type of sewing originated when her [Florestine’s] grandmother watched a nun make a flower out of yarn and she then went home to use moose hair to make flowers,” McLeod says in her artist statement.

McLeod’s beautiful pieces feature strong contemporary influences and would look at home on a couture fashion runway. But ultimately, she says, “It always comes back to family.”
“[It] makes me extremely proud to have a long line of strong, creative matriarchs in the family.”

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