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Taking the North on tour

Button blanket dancer by Dennis Shorty. Photo by Jennifer Fröhling.

Don’t be shocked if you recognize Sharon Vittrekwa in Argentina. Or Dennis Shorty in Brazil. Or Violet Gatensby in Uganda. They’re just three of 10 Yukon Indigenous artists whose work will travel around the world from now on, as part of the Global Affairs Canada Visual Art Collection. 

The collection, which started in the 1920s, consists of more than 6,500 works that are displayed in Canadian embassies and buildings in more than 100 cities around the world. 

“When (the work travels) to a new location, all the artists get updated and then they’re aware of where their work is, which is pretty cool,” says Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé, the Upper Tanana artist who curated the acquisitions for Global Affairs. 

In addition to Vittrekwa, Shorty and Gatensby, those artists include Karrie Brown, Krystle Silverfox, Vashti “Nénests’ík Mā” Etzel, Heather Dickson, Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro, Jackie Olson and Kaylyn Baker.

When Vander Meer-Chassé first looked at the collection last November, she focused on how many Yukon artists were in the collection and, of those, how many were Indigenous. 

Vander Meer-Chassé, who works as a freelance curator in addition to her own arts practice, says it’s common for collections to be interested in adding underrepresented artists. However, it’s also common for them to be unaware of what they have. It’s only when someone gets the chance to sit down and crunch the numbers, the way she did, that they know where they need to look.  

tth_i_yawnan by Krystle Silverfox “When I went through the entire list of Indigenous artists within the collection, I identified all of the gaps. So which regions where there's not much representation? Or even First Nations, Métis or Inuit? All these kinds of different things, you know, female artists or Two-Spirit artists versus male artists,” she says. 

From there, she made a list of who she wanted to see included. She further narrowed the list by looking at who had work that was conducive to being part of the collection. Because of the way the pieces travel and the venues in which they’re typically shown, she knew any large-scale installations or sculptures wouldn’t work. After that, she started reaching out to see who had work available. In the end, everyone she put forward to the acquisitions committee was accepted. 

One of the things she’s most excited about is that she was able to add work that uses more natural materials, like hides and furs. These include Brown’s Original Mandala Mukluks, Etzel’s Yūkā Dancing Shawl and Esquiro’s Honouring our Grandmothers and Mothers, which is a silk and tweed jacket with lynx paws and seal skin. 

“(The collection) is really kind of dominated by sculpture and print work and and things like that,” says Vander Meer-Chassé. “But in the Yukon, you know, when we think of Indigenous art, what do we think of, you know, yeah, carving, sculptures for sure. But also just the amount of artists that are working in beads. We have a huge growing fashion cohort right now in the Yukon that’s what I think of when I think of Yukon Indigenous contemporary art today.”

She says she didn’t get to add as many artists to the collection as she would have liked, for no reason other than the fact that some of the artists she approached didn’t have any work available at the time. But she’s heartened she was able to give Global Affairs a list identifying the gaps in the collection, and that the department said it will prioritize those gaps in upcoming acquisitions.  

“For myself, I’m just really proud of the work that was selected. And the artists selected and now represented in the collection because it does just add so much more,” she says. “It just kind of builds up that collection a little bit more in a way that relates directly to the North and Yukon specifically … it feels like I made a little change.”