Artist Robyn McLeod doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t compelled to create.
Having grown up around family members who were constantly making clothing for loved ones, she says it’s only natural that she would do the same.
“I’ve heard other Indigenous women, Dene women say it … it’s just in you, and you just know,” McLeod says. “You just make things, and nobody has to tell you how to do it. That’s how I feel.”
McLeod is Dene, Métis, Scottish and a member of the Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation in Fort Providence.
She took a two-year fashion design program at the Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, then attended the Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City for a year, where a pair of mukluks she made for her partner won an award in 2019. She’s a member of the 2020 fashion cohort with EntrepreNorth in Yellowknife.
Now residing in Ross River, Yukon, McLeod is in the midst of her biggest artistic endeavour yet.
She has designed a collection of dresses, jewellery, and accessories that merge Dene culture with styles from different times and places: a project she calls Dene Futurism.
McLeod has drawn heavily on Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism, concepts she learned from a teacher in Dawson City.
Afrofuturism, a term coined in 1993, blends elements of science fiction with Black culture, history, and styles. Indigenous Futurism similarly weaves Indigenous knowledge and ways of being with futuristic ideas and technology.
In McLeod’s work, fluorescent visors complete with beaded details. Tulip skirts are made entirely of moosehide. Gowns are decorated with floral patterns designed by McLeod’s grandmother.
“It’s past, present, and future within my culture, within my family, within the land, within art,” McLeod explains. “It’s a constant loop. There’s no end.
“You can imagine yourself at any given time, bringing all of these different perspectives and cultural processes that have been used before, that probably have been lost, and bringing it into the future as if it’s never been lost.
“It’s nice to be able to think my great-grandchildren will still be tanning hides and still be using the same tools that we’re using … be able to connect with me, feel the connection to their ancestors, and feel all these good feelings that come with it.”
Propelled by her excitement, McLeod designed all seven outfits in her Dene Futurism collection in the span of four days, landing grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and Culture Quest Yukon.
McLeod drafts and sews the dresses. She hires other Indigenous artists in the North to help her with jewellery and accessories, including Dene artist Vashti Etzel, Tlingit and Tutchone artist Kaylyn Baker, and her sister, Shawna.
Being able to share the designs with other women has made the experience more meaningful, McLeod says.
“I reached out to the women that I knew would do a really good job and would do it in a good amount of time and wouldn’t want to let me down,” she said. “They’re very, very good at what they do, so it wasn’t too hard to delegate out to these people.”
After more than a year of working on her designs – and giving birth to a baby girl a month ago – McLeod is in the process of finishing the seventh and final dress in the collection. She has plans to exhibit it at the Adäka Cultural Festival in Whitehorse when it happens next, showcasing bits and pieces on her Instagram in the meantime.
She hopes the pieces will eventually be purchased by a museum or gallery.
“The Smithsonian,” she muses. “I’m aiming big.”
Wherever the pieces are displayed, McLeod says she wants those who see her work to be “surprised, inspired, and excited.”
“We’ve always had this traditional knowledge,” she says.
“All you have to do is go to your Elders and seek it. But there’s all of this technology, and all of these new advances.
“It’s something that’s easily relatable and really exciting for people. Being able to envision your own futurisms and how you relate to it, it’s kind-of fun.”