Sonya Kelliher-Combs, a visual artist based in Anchorage, is showing her exhibit “Goodbye” at the Yukon Arts Centre which addresses suicide in Indigenous communities in the North. (Submitted)

Anchorage artist addresses suicide in Indigenous communities with new exhibit

‘This is something that touches a whole community’

Dozens of mittens, some small enough to fit the hand of a minor, are propped up on a white sheet. Splashes of colourful embroidery adorn most of them. They call on you to look closer, to figure out what’s going on here.

Couple this with the title of the exhibit – “Goodbye” – and it starts to sink in.

The installation, which opened on May 30 at the Yukon Arts Centre, addresses an undeniably difficult subject in the North: suicide in Indigenous communities.

“Maybe some of them are from people who have taken their own life. Maybe it’s a brother, a mother, a sister, a friend. It could be anybody, and I think that’s the thing that’s important. This is something that touches a whole community,” said Sonya Kelliher-Combs, a multidisciplinary artist based in Anchorage.

“Today, there have been all of these celebrities who’ve taken their lives recently, who’ve committed suicide and brought it more into a national and international kind of awareness, but our people have been dealing with this epidemic for multiple generations now.”

It’s a work that’s in collaboration with participants from the Whitehorse area and Alaska.

Kelliher-Combs, who’s Iñupiaq, has done curatorial installations in the past, but this is the first time she’s involved the public like this.

“I guess I wanted to speak about a subject that is often taboo and not really talked about because of things that have been imposed on native people like religion. I wanted to open up a conversation, a dialogue about these difficult subjects.”

The idea is that suicide doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that underpinning it are social ills connected to historical traumas.

“I think there’s a loss of identity, I think colonialist practices in all Indigenous communities have contributed to these social ills,” Kelliher-Combs said. “I know it’s not just in the North. I just happen to be in the North. I’m from a small community and we’re heavily impacted by it.

“If we don’t acknowledge this, it’s hard to heal from these staggering statistics, you know, you become a statistic yourself. I really like feeling like it isn’t just my voice because there’s other people who are impacted and to help inspire people to speak up and not be afraid.”

All mittens were loaned after the Yukon Arts Centre put out a call. Aside from two sets, which came from a museum collection, most belong to residents.

“It’s something that’s very personal and everybody uses them in the North,” Kelliher-Combs said, when asked why gloves were chosen for the piece.

Originally from Nome, Alaska, Kelliher-Combs has tackled the topic of suicide through her art previously. It’s a topic that’s deeply personal.

Before starting on these works, three of her uncles took their own lives, she said.

“We’ve since lost multiple other relatives, as well,” she said. “So, yeah, it’s very personal and a trauma to our family.”

There’s another component to the piece that seeks to empower people to speak out. At its entrance are glove tethers that people can write messages onto, if they choose.

When the free exhibit ends on August 24 those messages will be “transformed, let go” during a ceremony.

“We might burn them. Maybe we’ll paint or stitch them,” Kelliher-Combs said.

“I feel that this collaboration or community engagement is new to me, but I’m really excited about giving an opportunity to people to participate and have a voice. That’s sort of what those messages are about.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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