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Originally meant for AWGs, Emerging North art exhibit now a “last little celebration”

The exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre features the work of eight young, emerging Indigenous artists
Paradise by Heather Von Steinhagen at the Emerging North exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery. The exhibit was meant to coincide with the 2020 Arctic Winter Games. (Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre)

While the cancellation of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse has meant the folding of most satellite activities, at least one major event is still carrying on.

Emerging North, an exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre, was originally planned in conjunction with the games. It features the work of eight young, emerging Indigenous artists who are either from or have strong ties to the Yukon; six of them were asked to create new work while the other two had pieces in the Yukon permanent art collection.

All the pieces centre around themes that tie in to the games one way or another — shared northern experiences, for example, or the connection between survival and sport — and curator Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé said she had an audience of young athletes in mind.

Most of the work was ready to go, and some of it already mounted in the centre’s main gallery, when the news broke on March 7 that the games, which bring together hundreds of athletes from around the circumpolar north every two years, wouldn’t be happening after all.

Like dozens of other sporting events around the world, fears about the spread of COVID-19 had led to organizers deciding to ultimately pull the plug on the Arctic Winter Games, just a week before they were to begin.

Vander Meer-Chassé said she first heard about the cancellation when one of the exhibit’s artists texted her about the announcement. A quick search on Facebook confirmed the news.

“I had no idea at that moment of what was going to happen (with Emerging North),” Vander Meer-Chassé told the News during a tour of the exhibit on March 11.

“But ultimately, right now, we are the last associated event with the Arctic Winter Games that’s going through, so I’m really proud that we are.”

Vander Meer-Chassé has been working on the show for the better part of a year; she began reaching out to artists in May or June of 2019 and asking if they would be able to have something together in time for the start of the games.

As a young and Indigenous artist herself, Vander Meer-Chassé said she wanted to support and help open the door for other young, early-career Indigenous artists, and also thought that their work would be more engaging for the young audience the games were expected to bring in.

She ultimately ended up with a roster of six — Kaylyn Baker, Krystle Coughlin Silverfox, Violet Gatensby, Blake Shaá’koon Lepine, Cole Pauls and Heather Von Steinhagen. Accompanying their new, original work are existing pieces by Jeneen Frei Njootli and Benjamin Gribben that Vander Meer-Chassé pulled from the territory’s permanent art collection.

The art ranges from an audio-visual set with graffiti-streaked “mountains” and a giant resin painting to hand-drawn comics to delicate copper-head arrows to colourful spears suspended from the ceiling by nearly-invisible wires. None of the artists collaborated or coordinated their work, and yet, the exhibit still feels cohesive, with each element complimenting instead of clashing with its neighbour.

None of the artists in the exhibit have ever had their work displayed in the Yukon Arts Centre’s main gallery either, something Vander Meer-Chassé said she only realized after the fact but that she was happy about.

“This is the biggest gallery space in the Yukon … It’s a good thing to see on your resume, it’s a good thing on your CV to help these artists go to the next level of their career,” she said.

While the show was originally supposed to compliment the Arctic Winter Games and channel its celebration of the North and its peoples, Vander Meer-Chassé said she’s hoping it can now serve as a “last little celebration, a last hurrah” for what was supposed to be.

“It’s not like just some random exhibition that you’re not going to interact with, it was an exhibition related to an event that’s no longer occurring, but if you’re wanting to reminisce about it, this exhibition can provide that,” she said.

“I really hope that people (won’t) be consumed by fear and actually come out to support these artists because like I said, they’re all young Indigenous artists at the start of their career and to have numbers out at the opening will be important to show that they’re supported.”

Emerging North opens to the public at the Yukon Arts Centre’s main gallery on March 13. An artists’ talk will be held March 18, with an opening reception on March 19.

Two other Arctic Winter Games-associated exhibits at the centre will also be continuing. In the community gallery, the Youth of Today Society will be painting a nine-panel mural from March 16 to 19 honouring the circumpolar regions of the Arctic Winter Games. Meanwhile, in the youth gallery, visitors can view works by young Yukon and Yamal (Northern Siberia) artists interpreting what they think the future of the North may look like.

Contact Jackie Hong at

Diving Shark by Ben Gribben in the Emerging North exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery. The exhibit runs March 13-May 22. (Yukon Permanent Art Collection/Government of Yukon)