Teresa Vander-Meer Chassé during the opening of her new exhibit at Arts Underground on Friday. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News)

Family ties: Indigenous artists explore their roots in new shows

‘It’s who I am, who we are as people’

Broken, discarded hubcaps, made beautiful with intricate beadwork.

Ink drawings and wood carvings, adorned with copper and caribou-skin accents.

The two galleries held art of very different mediums and styles, but each, in its own way, evoked memories of family and resourcefulness, of Indigenous identity and of stories passed down.

And together, Teresa Vander-Meer Chassé’s Rez Car and Dennis Shorty’s My Childhood Memories opened side-by-side at Whitehorse’s Arts Underground space last Friday evening, marking the first time in recent memory two Indigenous artists have had shows open at the same time in the space and drawing in a few dozen attendees.

For Shorty, My Childhood Memories was a chance to honour his parents and grandparents and the teachings they passed down to him, including teachings of language, spirituality, survival skills and respect for nature and animals.

“(My gallery) is to do with toys that my father carved for me when I was a child, stories that my grandfather, grandmother and mum told us when we were kids, and it’s personal to show something like this, it’s who I am, who we are as people,” Shorty said. His gallery featured several ink drawings of his grandmother and mother’s faces, who he said were wonderful storytellers, as well as a number of carvings inspired by the toys and tools his grandfather and father would make for him.

“My dad, when I was growing up, he carved me toys when I was a little kid, out of wood, and they were all about teachings,” Shorty said. For example, a carving would replicate caribou hoof prints in the snow or dirt, so Shorty could learn to recognize and track them. He recalled watching his father pick up a piece of wood in the morning, and by night, would have whittled out a wooden pistol or mask.

“(My father is) why I carve,” Shorty said.

Shorty and his partner, Jennifer Froehling, who perform as Dena Zagi, also sang and played several songs together at the opening, with all the lyrics written in the Kaska language.

Vander-Meer Chassé said her gallery, Rez Car, was inspired by the men in her life — her father, grandfather, cousins and uncles. The exhibit was part of her ongoing series, “Indigenizing Colonial Garbage,” which also features a beadwork-covered high-heel shoe and pylon.

“I like garbage and I like junk, and I just find inspiration in those kind of things,” Vander-Meer Chassé said. “My grandpa, Sid, has this massive backyard and he has old cars there that are kind of falling apart, some of them actually drive, and he just uses what he has in that yard to fix up these cars and drive them, so it kind of comes from that, of collecting, we like broken things and kind of changing them and transforming them.”

The name of the installation is a reference to the 1998 movie Smoke Signals, Vander-Meer Chassé said, where one of the characters has a car that can only drive in reverse gear.

“My uncle, who actually gave me two of the hubcaps that are in the show, drove one, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I always had to put it into reverse, I couldn’t put it into drive, it just didn’t work!’ So he’s like driving backward the whole time,” Vander-Meer Chassé said with a laugh.

She added that she and Shorty have been friends since meeting at the Adäka Cultural Festival a few years back and were fans of each other’s work. They’re also both from First Nations without self-government agreements — Vander-Meer Chassé, from White River First Nation, and Shorty of the Ross River Dena Council — which Vander-Meer Chassé said was another link that brought them together.

And although they didn’t collaborate on their shows, Vander-Meer Chassé said their galleries still managed to flow together.

“Our stories kind of line up, actually, because all of the hubcaps, that whole series, was inspired by all of the men in my life, so my dad, my grandpa, my uncles, my cousins, and Dennis’ show is all about his grandfather, his dad…. So I think we complement each other this way,” she said.

My Childhood Memories and Rez Car both run until Aug. 26.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com