Amber Walker’s fourth solo exhibition bears the title Reclamation—a word that has several meanings for the 27-year-old Whitehorse artist.
In part, Walker says, it is about reclaiming the Aztec side of her heritage, something she knew nothing about as a child.
“I’d always ask, ‘Why am I so dark?’ and my Mom would say, ‘Well, you’re Mexican’ and just leave it at that. She wasn’t opposed to me being Aztec, she just didn’t know.”
Walker grew up in Modesto, California with a mother whose features clearly demonstrated her Irish-German roots and a younger sister with blonde hair and hazel eyes.
She found herself being treated as an outcast by both “really proud Latino families and really proud Europeans” in her neighbourhood.
“I was kind of stuck in this very… I like to call it no-boundaries spiritual place of not identifying with anything at the time.”
Her youthful response to not fitting in racially anywhere was to say, “OK. Well, I’ll just remain the black sheep,” she admits.
That began to change when she was 15.
“When I met my Dad, I asked him and he said I was Aztec, and I kind of let it go.”
Still, it wasn’t until she moved to Yukon five years ago and married a Southern Tuchone man that she began exploring her indigenous heritage in earnest.
“I was embraced by the Southern Tuchone people, and I started dancing with them and I felt more at home, but I still felt like there was a piece missing,” Walker says.
She began to dig into her roots, researching Aztec art, religious beliefs even Aztec dancing.
“A big part of what I’m saying through these pieces is, ‘Yes, I’m Aztec, definitely, and I’m reclaiming that part of my ancestry,'” she says.
“But I’m also reclaiming the idea that if we’re not one with each other, if we’re not going back to the land, if we’re not realizing that a lot of what we’re doing now is destroying us, then there’s really nothing left for us to do other than suffer the consequences of what we’ve been doing.”
The 17 pencil and ink works in the upcoming exhibition are clearly influenced by Aztec art, in both style and theme.
One of her new pieces, entitled “The Snail God”, depicts one of the deities responsible for the various suns in the Aztec belief system.
“There were five different suns,” each ruled by a certain deity chosen by one of the higher gods, Walker explains.
“And each sun ended in destruction, as it is said.”
Walker admits her ancestors were a “hostile” people who engaged in certain questionable rituals.
“I’m not saying that my people were perfect, that’s for sure,” she says, citing “a lot of the practices back in the day when it was OK to take prisoners and treat them well, and then kill them the next day.”
These human sacrifices were done “in hopes that the sun would keep on living, so that the land would be fruitful,” she explains.
“That, of course, is not something I agree with,” she adds with a rich laugh.
Something else Walker unearthed in her research was the Aztec reputation for being pessimistic, even though “they add a lot of flowers” in their work.
“Which I thought was kind of ironic, because when I first started painting, I would add flowers everywhere, even if it was the most really deep, grueling, unpleasant piece of work I was doing, there were always flowers there,” she says.
“So I guess a piece of my ancestry was already leaked out before I even knew it existed, really.”
Those familiar with Walker’s previous work as a painter may see the new exhibition as a major departure, although she did display some of her pencil and ink works at the Adäka Cultural Festival in June.
“People were saying this is what you should stick to. Of course, I’m very careful with what other people say, but I definitely already had that in mind, just sticking with this for a little bit longer to see where it takes me.”
Reclamation opens Friday, August 3 at the Yukon Artists @ Work co-operative gallery on Industrial Road.