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

suicideYukon

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

A sign indicating a drop-off area behind Selkirk Elementary school in Whitehorse on Feb. 25. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Parking lot proposal for Selkirk Elementary criticized

Parents and school council are raising concerns about green space and traffic woes

adsf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 26, 2021

Ken Anderson’s Sun and Moon model sculpture sits in the snow as he carves away at the real life sculpture behind Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse on Feb. 21, 2018. Yukon Rendezvous weekend kicks off today with a series of outdoor, virtual and staged events. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Rendezvous snowpad, live music and fireworks this weekend

A round-up of events taking place for the 2021 Rendezvous weekend

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. The proposed Atlin Hydro Expansion project is moving closer to development with a number of milestones reached by the Tlingit Homeland Energy Limited Partnership and Yukon Energy over the last several months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Atlin hydro project progresses

Officials reflect on milestones reached

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read