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Tethers and ties to each other and the land

By Amy Kenny

It wasn’t planned, that a show featuring works from Northern Indigenous artists from across the country would also be curated from all corners of Canada, but that’s how Tether ended up coming together—over a series of carefully-timed zoom meetings between its four co-curators.

“I felt for the people on the West Coast who had to wake up at eight in the morning. I was in the sweet spot in the middle (of the country at the time),” says Heather Steinhagen, laughing.

Steinhagen, along with Leanne Inuarak-Dall, Darcie “Ouiyaghasiak” Bernhardt and Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé, was responsible for Tether, an exhibition at the Yukon Arts Centre featuring more than 50 pieces from collections across Canada. She says the links present in the works, diverse as they are, mirrored the links she and her co-curators had to each other, even as they were spread across the country.

It was a nice bit of symmetry for a show that sought to address land, language, community, heritage and identity as the flagship exhibition in the third-ever Arctic Arts Summit, which took place in Whitehorse in June (previous summits have taken place in Finland and Norway, in 2017 and 2021).

The four curators were mentored through the process by Dr. Heather Igloliorte, who was the coordinating producer and chair of programming for the Arctic Arts Summit, as well as the project director for Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership (which supports Inuit and Inuvialuit to become leaders in the arts within their communities).

Steinhagen says the process began in September 2021 and required weekly meetings to determine what the show would look like. A number of the pieces chosen came from historical and contemporary collections that were made available to Steinhagen and her co-curators.

“It was really interesting to see both Inuit and Yukon First Nations artwork together,” Steinhagen says. “It’s not often that that happens outside of a gift shop, really. So we really tried to take this opportunity to lead with our Indigenous perspective.”

Part of that, Steinhagen says, was a decision, put forward by Vander Meer-Chassé, about labelling historical works.

“Normally, they would be titled as being by an unknown artist. But Teresa made the choice and collectively we made the choice, to write them down as an ancestor artist instead of an unknown artist.”

In addition to drawing from existing collections, the curatorial team was also able to commission new works for the exhibition.

“That was really hard to narrow in because there was four of us and only a limited amount of commissions we could have had, but we really tried to represent a diversity of material and themes,” says Steinhagen.

One of these commissions is a painting from Inuit artist, Jessica Winters. Titled “Auntie Teaching me to Make Earrings,” it features a close-up view of a pair of hands straightening a length of blue thread.

Angela Code, a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation who lives in Whitehorse, worked with her mother on traditional beadwork depicting non-traditional images, including snowmobiles and modern Indigenous slang.

Vuntut Gwitch’in artists Montana and Delaney Prysnuk installed a caribou hide in the gallery.

Elsewhere, work ranged from beaded mukluks and soapstone carvings, to tapestries and oil paintings. Taken together, they are a different way of storytelling the significance of land and a sense of place that is shared, even when its specifics differ.

Tether is on display at YAC until August 26.