A grassroots mural project is pairing youth and professional artists to paint the walls of Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, and Dettah with images dedicated to positive Indigenous stories.
Project founder Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark and her sister Kalina Newmark say the idea came from wanting to honour the lives of their great aunt and cousin, along with other Indigenous women who were murdered.
“We had been thinking a lot about how we honour, not just their lives, but honour other women in the NWT’s lives who are a part of that movement as well and doing it in a really good way. The first idea was to have a mural honouring healthy, strong women and then it really grew from that point,” said Mahalia.
Kalina says the first idea was to have a mural festival this summer but, because of Covid-19, they adapted the project into a six-mural series. At the end, artists and youth will come together next summer for five days to paint them.
“Mahalia and the team really thought creatively about how to implement this in a way that extends the opportunity and time to allow for engagement and collaboration among the artists,” Kalina said.
Kalina says another “beautiful” outcome of delaying the project is the opportunity for more dialogue between the artists, youth participants, and the community.
Three online panels for what has been named the Strong People, Strong Communities project will be held in November, March, and June.
Those panels will in part discuss transforming the narrative with Indigenous art, what youth participants have learned and their experiences, and what’s important to them in the project.
Mahalia says she often thinks of a quote from author Thomas King: “the truth about stories is that’s all we are.”
“When I think of myself as a Dene First Nations woman and I think about how often we, as Indigenous people, are talked about and portrayed in media and generally in life, it’s often stories about our disparities or things that are negative that happened with our communities,” said Mahalia.
“This project is really seeded in uplifting the positive things about our community and changing those stories by telling different kinds of stories about ourselves,” said Kalina.
‘Uplift youth voices’
A call for youth from different backgrounds and cultural identities closed last Wednesday. and Mahalia says they have had a “great response” and are reviewing applications. At least six youth will be selected to participate and more where possible.
Youth will be partnered with Indigenous artists in mural-making teams and design each mural together. They will design the project’s logo at a workshop in January.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is really uplift and highlight our youth voices. So they have an opportunity to not just learn art skills and work with professional artists, but really have a chance to think about what’s important to them and messaging,” said Mahalia.
The professional Indigenous artists involved are Chief Lady Bird, Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Brian Kowikchuck, Cody Fennell, Kailey Sheppard, Lianne Charlie, Peatr Thomas, Carla Rae Taylor, Nigit’stil Norbert, Myrna Pokiak, and Melanie Jewell.
“The team has done a really fantastic job of curating a collective of professional artists, all Indigenous, from the North and also the rest of Canada who all are not only very creatively gifted, but have very strong characters and strong, positive community presence,” said Xina Cowan, another project volunteer.
“To find out that you’ve been paired with a big name like Chief Lady Bird … I think it really is an incredibly unique opportunity. It’s also a really special opportunity for the artists because it’s not every day that they necessarily get to work with youth.”
The themes for the murals will be: healthy, strong women; healthy, strong men; honouring our LGBTQ2S+ community and other Indigenous ways of being; healthy, strong babies and youth; healthy, strong Elders; and healthy, strong families and communities.
“I think a lot about what it means to be a part of a healthy, strong community and it requires that all people in our community are healthy and strong,” said Mahalia.
The project kicks off on Friday with a Zoom orientation to establish the mural teams, then they will have until December to submit their final designs.
Four of the murals will be placed in Yellowknife, one mural will go to Ndilǫ, and the last mural will go to Dettah.