On Monday, March 16, the Yukon’s Chief Medical officer set health and safety measures against COVID-19 in place that we’re still in the midst of; these measures have changed the context in which we’re making art, at least for now. I rushed out of my house, not to get toilet paper, but to see Emerging North at the Yukon Arts Centre before the gallery closed entirely to the public.
I saw fresh, strong new work, including pieces by artists whose names I did not yet know. I was entranced by Krystle Coughlin Silverfox’s “Ets’edegél’ (Spear Game).” Multicoloured and copper leaf covered cedar wands hang in space as if caught in a moment of flight.
Emerging North marks Selkirk First Nation artist Silverfox’s first exhibition in Yukon. She lives and has studied art extensively in Vancouver and came up to Whitehorse to install the piece. Sadly, she did not get to connect with as many Yukon artists as she and guest curator Teresa Vander Meer Chassé had hoped.
Upper Tanana artist and curator Vander Meer Chassé, of the White River First Nation, curated this exhibition of young Indigenous artists for the Arctic Winter Games. It’s the largest exhibition she’s curated, a big milestone for her.
When Yukon Arts Centre Gallery director Mary Bradshaw approached Vander Meer Chassé to curate this exhibition for the Arctic Winter Games – now cancelled – she was keen to relate it to youth. The Games make space for young athletes to exhibit their prowess, and she wanted to make a show of Indigenous artists that were either at emerging or at the beginning of their career.
It gave her a chance to explore some of the nuances of what ‘Yukon First Nations’ means. One of the artists in the show, Heather Von Steinhagen, has lived her whole life in the Yukon, but her Plains Cree heritage comes from elsewhere. It was important to Vander Meer-Chassé to assert that this, too, is a way of being Yukon First Nations.
Two artists’ works, by Jeneen Frei Njootli, and Benjamin Gribbin, came from the Yukon Permanent Art Collection. The remaining six created new works for this show, exploring themes around the Games and shared Northern experience. Vander Meer-Chassé made sure the artists had freedom to create. “I tried not to hold the artists on a leash,” she said.
The week the exhibit was installed was profoundly delightful for her, says Vander Meer-Chassé. Despite progress photos sent by each of the artists, the moment of surprise and discovery as each work came in added a special dimension to the installation, which is in any case Vander Meer Chassé’s favourite part of curating a show.
The show was up and the opening only days away when the gallery closed.
When Von Steinhagen first heard that the gallery had closed, she had to admit, it felt like heartbreak. Her video and resin installation, “Paradise,” was the largest piece she’s done. Months of work and over nine layers of resin have gone into it. She also built the installations with pathways for people to interact with it, casting their shadows on the spray-painted mountains, seeing their reflections in the resin. Then she realized too how much work had gone into coordinating the show, and that Vander Meer Chassé and the other artists would be feeling the same way.
At first the Yukon Arts Centre just postponed the opening. Bradshaw brought Yukon Arts Centre photographer and marketing coordinator Mike Thomas on right away, and they shot a virtual tour of the exhibition with Vander Meer-Chassé. Both Von Steinhagen and Vander Meer-Chassé are grateful that the video got out so quickly. Vander Meer Chassé wishes she had had more time to spend reflecting on the work, and hearing the artists talking about it, so she could have talked about it more deeply.
Vander Meer Chassé is happy to report that the Yukon Arts Centre is planning a virtual artist talk through using Zoom. This will give artists and the public a chance to explore the show piece by piece. The artists will speak towards these pieces they have put so much work into and there will be a chance to ask questions. The date is still to be determined, but it will likely be before the end of May.
The dedication Vander Meer Chassé and the Yukon Arts Centre devoted to creating unique opportunities to see the show off site despite our state of emergency inspires Von Steinhagen. The quality of collaboration in this problem solving gives her hope.
Emerging North is up until May 22. While it’s unlikely you can see it at the gallery, you can see it via Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjqxBR9gtxg, with more information on the exhibit them available through Vander Meer Chassé’s website at https://teresavandermeerchasse.wordpress.com. Watch for the upcoming Zoom artist talk, expected to take place towards the end of April.