Pieces of an Indigenous Puzzle Come Together

Upon entering the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery, a full-sized taxidermy polar bear stands stoic with its jaw wide open. Peering out from the bear’s white limbs sits a somewhat-to-scale cut-out of Joseph Tisiga, outfitted in his familiar Grey Owl getup.

Over the speakers in the gallery, voices rhyme off slogans: “Indian Brand Corporation is a sure thing.” A short film plays on loop and a line of collage images lead toward a room filled with found objects, a series of paintings and an area festooned like a sterile office.

“On a superficial level, it is paintings, installation, photography … there’s a film and found art,” Tisiga says of his latest exhibit titled, Indian Brand Corporation.

“But the approach is using the identity of the corporation, or status of corporations as we see them now, and presenting this narrative, or this story, through that concept.”

The narrative is one of indigenous culture, and Tisiga has appropriated elements of this culture with the organized, industrialized and commercial aspects of a conglomerate.

“I feel like, overall, it’s an indigenous mentality that I want to work in. I don’t want to work within a First Nations context or an Indian context,” he explains.

“It’s this indigenous context that is, in itself, a narrative that I want to evolve over the course of my life and really engage people in. What it is to be indigenous. What it is to be non-indigenous. This is all just one piece of that whole puzzle.”

Juxtaposing realistic and cartoon aesthetics, Tisiga combines indigenous figures with characters from Archie comics in a series of paintings included in the exhibit. Jughead shares a peace pipe with one; Veronica converses with another over breakfast; and Archie prepares to enter a sweat lodge.

Aside from borrowing from comics, Tisiga gathered items over the last couple of months for the installation – from random objects and rugs that complete a pseudo totem pole, to a lawnmower and floor buffer from the old Council of Yukon First Nations building.

For a number of days, Tisiga was given access to the building before tear down began. Photographs and the short film show him traversing the halls.

“I feel like it’s capturing this indigenous mentality where you work from your environment; you work from your land,” he says. “When the CYFN building opened up, that became something in my environment that I was able to use and recycle into something else.”

Tisiga admits he’s a very process-oriented artist.

“I really enjoy the process of something where you never really know what to expect and when an opportunity comes up, you work with it as best as you can,” he explains.

“It doesn’t even matter if that opportunity is just a form of material, like paints, or canvas … you just have something and then it’s like, ‘What do I do with this?’ and ‘How can this be used in a great way?'”

Another part of the process is how people perceive the work. Tisiga prefers to leave it all to other’s interpretations in order to ultimately create a collective narrative on Indian Brand Corporation.

“It’s all just forms of storytelling and [the work] is just artifacts or situations that are happening within the art,” he explains.

“The word artist was such a hard thing for me, for so long, because everyone is so creative. People perceive things in different ways.

“I perceive life through stories or narratives, and then art is a way for me to express that.”

Fellow artists Morgan Whibley and Kyle Cashen also played an integral role in bringing the exhibit together. Whibley contributed a series of photographs and Cashen created the short film’s score and audio recordings that play throughout the space.

And while Tisiga is bursting with thoughts of where to go from here, he’s accomplished an impressive amount since the year began.

Not only did he receive a visual arts production grant from Canada Council for the Arts, for this exhibit, but he’s also gotten involved in a promotional opportunity through the organization that showcases 10 First Nations artists from across Canada.

Beyond that, he was recently awarded an Advanced Artist Award from Yukon Tourism and Culture. Furthermore, he’ll travel to Montréal, in October, as one of 15 nationwide semifinalists in Royal Bank of Canada’s Canadian Painting Competition.

And there’s still more work to be done for Indian Brand Corporation: over the course of the summer, Tisiga will reconstruct the space. Plus, he’ll perform new versions of his Late Night with Grey Owl piece that he presented at Nakai Theatre’s Pivot Festival earlier this year.

“I don’t feel like I’m a painter or a performer,” he says. “I just make art and I just enjoy the whole process of making art and putting myself in situations that I can’t necessarily control or anticipate.”

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