“It’s just been such a blessing and wonderful experience. My heart is full.”
This is how Inuvialuit artist Christina King described her time at last week’s Strong People, Strong Communities mural-painting festival.
Over the past week, artists of all ages and backgrounds spent hours each day in tents beside the Yellowknife Fieldhouse, sketching images onto large wood panels before bringing the pieces to life with paint.
The project was founded by sisters Kalina Newmark and Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark last year. The pair said they came up with the idea when looking to honour the lives of their great aunt and cousin, along with other Indigenous women who have been murdered.
Highlighting positive Indigenous stories was the main drive behind the project, they continued.
“There’s this quote that I always think about by Thomas King: ‘The truth about stories is that’s all we are,’” Yakeleya-Newmark told Cabin Radio at the festival.
“When I think about the stories in my family, about who we are as Indigenous people, there’s so many stories about our strength, about our kindness and resilience. Those stories deserve to be told.”
Newmark added that Indigenous communities must often combat negative stereotypes.
“A lot of the things that we see in media or in society are not always representative of the beauty and the excellence that we see in our own communities and our own stories,” she said, “so I think it’s pretty amazing that we have artists creating pieces that really show our excellence.
“At the end of the day, there’ll be these beautiful pieces in Yellowknife that people can interact with and see. That’s really the purpose of it.”
The project paired northern youth with Indigenous professional artists to create murals. The 21 artists involved – 11 youth from the NWT and 10 mentors from across Canada – were split into six teams and each designed murals around a distinct theme. Concepts were revealed in a virtual gathering this May.
Though not all the artists could attend last week’s mural festival due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the 15 that did were assisted in painting by members of the public. Workshops such as Dene cream-making and Inuit stone carving allowed them to flex their creative talents in other mediums.
‘We need to be heard’
Jordan Epelon, 21, was born and raised in Yellowknife. He identifies as Inuit and part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and was a member of the team called Healthy, Strong Men.
“This one of the most important things in my life,” he said, “being a young man myself, going through some struggles, but still being able to keep a good amount of the strength to be able to come out here and have a great time.”
Epelon said he joined the project to showcase the voices of LGBTQ2S+ Indigenous youth, as well as set an example around sobriety.
“Other youth … I want them to know that it’s OK to do something without going out there and partying,” he said. “That’s why this was important for me. I struggle with some of this myself, so it’s being able to open my eyes up and learn something new.
“We need to be heard, and this is probably one of the best ways it could have happened. I’m proud of it.”
Epelon’s teammates were Yellowknifer Danielle Wendehorst and Peatr Thomas, a Swampy Cree and Ojibwe artist. Their piece depicts a dog sled team amid a northern winter landscape. In the sky above, an Elder formed by Northern Lights shows the way.
Healthy, Strong Men was one of three murals, alongside Healthy, Strong Women, and Healthy, Strong Babies and Youth, that were painted during the festival. The rest were created digitally and will be printed for display.
Navigating identity through art
A mural titled Honouring Our LGBTQ2S+ Community and Other Indigenous Ways of Being is one of those created digitally. It was designed by Inuvialuit artists Lexis McDonald and Brian Kowikchuk working with Labradormiut artist Kale Sheppard from northern Labrador.
Kowikchuk, who is originally from Tuktoyaktuk and now living in Inuvik, came out as gay when he was 19. He said more positive representation of the Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ community could help others do the same.
“A lot of our people are … born with a lot of cultural identity issues, because of residential school and whatnot,” he explained. “Having this interpretation for the LGBTQ+ community, it creates a safer ground for everyone to understand that it’s OK to be themselves.
“It’s creating that space and opportunity for these conversations and to bring some sense of confidence.”
Lexis McDonald, 18, is Inuvialuit from Inuvik and one of Kowikchuk’s teammates. Having recently started to identify as two-spirit, she said the experience of working in a team and designing a mural has helped her navigate this new identity.
“It’s helping me be comfortable with it because I’m trying to express that part of my identity into my artwork,” she said. “It’s been a lot of learning and a lot of experiences and just figuring out what I’m doing and who I am, but it’s been great working with Kale and Brian, because they know what they’re doing.”
This is something that King – also known by her Inuvialuit name, Taalrumiq – can relate to. She was a member of the Healthy, Strong Elders team, alongside Chippewa and Potawatomi artist Chief Lady Bird, Yellowknives Dene filmmaker Morgan Tsetta, and her own daughter, Isabella.
King said learning to be proud of who she is as an Indigenous person has taken her a long time.
“With my generation, we grew up not being confident in our identities or our traditional knowledge,” King explained. “There are aspects of my culture that I feel I’m not entitled to.
“To have this whole project uplift our people, right from babies all the way to Elders … it’s so important for us to see these positive representations, to know that we do have access to our traditional knowledge, our culture, and that we do have a right to be here and to be living our best lives.”
The murals will be hung up around the Yellowknife area: four will be in the city, one in Dettah, and another in Ndilǫ. Yakeleya-Newmark said the goal is to install the pieces by September.
“The most powerful thing that art can do is to make you engage with it,” she said. “What I would love is for somebody to see one of the pieces and just pause and have an experience with that piece.”
Newmark seconded her sister.
“The biggest thing is just to see how beautiful they are,” she said. “I think other people may get other messages, but at the end of the day, it’s to show Indigenous people are beautiful and we have so much to offer.”