The Yukon Prize Exhibition — Ken Anderson (Khàtinas.àxh), Amy Ball, Krystle Silverfox, Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro, Joseph Tisiga, Veronica Verkley
by Reed H. Reed
The Yukon Prize was formed specifically to address the territory’s artists’ relative lack of visibility in national art discourses. Competitions make me think about currency, not just because of the prize money, but also because of the circulation of work that is enabled through this format. Currency in the context of the Yukon invokes one of the most enduring narra- tives about the territory: resource extraction. Minerals such as copper, nickel, zinc, silver, and gold are mined, exported, and processed into refined forms, their “value accru[ing] … at a distance,” as Candice Hopkins once wrote. So, I entered the Yukon Prize exhibition with value on my mind—how it gets assigned, who does the assigning, and the space there is to challenge it all.
The complexity of commerce is addressed in Krystle Silverfox’s All that Glitters is Not Gold… (2019–2021), which creates an incisive link between her previous residence in Vancouver and her home territory of Selkirk First Nation. A wooden frame, built out of construction discards from Simon Fraser University (the artist’s alma mater) is used to stretch half of a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) blanket, which unravels into a spill of copper coins on the gallery floor. The latter reference the highly sought-after copper deposits in Northern Tutchone Territories, which are currently being mined by Goldcorp, a major funder of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. Trade histories are invoked by the inclusion of the HBC blanket; Fort Selkirk was once itself a Hudson’s Bay trading post and, before then, an important site for exchange between the Tlingit and Northern Tutchone. Given these past and continued relationships of trade within Canada, Silverfox’s work meditates on where value is extracted, who benefits the most from it, and what historical circumstances led to this tangle of interests.
Although we might feel distant from mining in urban centres like Vancouver, in the Yukon it is present and visible nearly everywhere—sometimes literally next door. Veronica Verkley lived for 12 years in a small off-grid cabin near active gold mines in Dawson City. Suspended Animation (2021), a life-size sculptural representation of a horse, is largely constructed from detritus from the mining industry—conveyor belts, rubber hoses, plastic tubing, and copper wires, intricately woven together by hand. In the arts centre, the horse appears limp and lifeless, but an installed pulley system implies that it could stand upright with a little elbow grease. At least 10 bodies are needed to activate it, an inversion of the frontier attitude that places the other-than-human in service to our human desires, and a nod to our collective responsibility to care for vulnerable landscapes. I can’t help but connect the sculpture to the circumstances in which it was built: Verkley’s cabin further and further encroached upon by an adjacent placer mine, piles of earth and rock shifting each day, burying habitats that the artist had meticulously tracked—from the emergence of the first mosquito in the spring, to the migration cycles of grosbeaks, to the passing through of neighbouring black bears. These practices of observation, care, and attentiveness to creaturely lives are intimately connected to Verkley’s work.
Many of the materials that Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro uses for her couture work are also sourced from the Yukon. Esquiro creates wearable work that references the artistic traditions of her Kaska Dena, Cree, and Scottish ancestors. Ascension (2017) features intricate beadwork designs, laser-cut rabbit fur, and a pair of lynx paws. Some of the materials are harvested in traditional ways—for example, the lynx was trapped by her uncle, a Kaska Ross River Elder—while others are gathered from her travels. Esquiro shared that Ascension was created at the bedside of her sick grandparents, which points to her careful honouring of what came before while evolving in new directions.
Amy Ball’s work powers (2018/2021) calls into question the currency of mass-produced goods. A structurally precise white tiled bench has embedded in the back a compartment storing canned food, candles, ibuprofen, and other disaster-ready effects. We’re invited to sit on the bench, but it feels like a way stop, too hard and cold to settle into. The piece is a reflection on doomsday prepper culture, the industrially produced goods stockpiled in the back an absurd solution to an uncertain future, their use value steadily expiring. The piece was created pre-pandemic but eerily forecasts its grocery hoarding.
Joseph Tisiga’s Untitled Series (2020) is also concerned with shifting values in uncertain times, having been created in the early pandemic. Playing with an economy of form, Tisiga sculpted scale cigarette butts from clay, hand-painting each one with watercolours. These were then arranged on astroturf panels in short phrases, some cryptic—“I COULD NOT WITHOUT MAGIC, LIFT MYSELF FROM THE DUST”—and others more direct: “LAND BACK.” In his Yukon Prize artist talk, Tisiga shared that these phrasings came from a collection of spontaneous notes on his phone, the work altogether capturing the uneven temporal atmosphere of crisis, and the will to communicate despite scarcity.
In Ken Anderson (Khàtinas.àxh)’s What we had what we have what we take what we are given where we are where we are going who we were who we are who we will be what we have lost and what we have found thanks no thanks; gunalthcheesh da ki en caw (2021), a Roomba-style vacuum erratically shuttles around a birch bowl—carved in a traditional Tlingit style— filled with seed beads. The title alone reads like a poetic challenge to notions of fair exchange. The presence of the busy cleaning device carrying supplies for creation points to the ongoing maintenance of art practice, where daily repetitive gestures might help to connect us back to what we value most.
All of the artists are reframing value on their own terms, whether it be through use of recycled and refuse materials, through engagement with art forms undervalued by colonial structures, or by bringing unacknowledged histories to the surface. The initial questions about value that I brought to the exhibition were deepened by the nuances of northerly lived experience that these artists bring to their practices.