Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark is looking to create compelling artwork and build community.
Both, she says, can be achieved through the upcoming mural project Strong People, Strong Communities.
The project is set to be completed next summer. It is a partnership among 11 Indigenous “featured” artists and youth aged 16 to 25 from around the territory. The artists, both featured and youth, are divided into six mural teams to complete the four murals in Yellowknife, one in Ndilo, and one in Dettah.
Yakeleya-Newmark, the creator of the project, says that Strong People, Strong Communities is a way of “taking ownership and power of our own stories through art.”
Too often, Indigenous stories that are told are about “disparities and tragedy,” she says.
“We’re so much more than that, and there’s so much to celebrate,” she says.
Although Yakeleya-Newmark envisioned the project, she emphasizes that she is not one of the artists, and that all participants bring their own perspectives.
Carla Rae Taylor, one of the 11 featured artists, is an artist and art teacher in Edmonton. Taylor grew up in Yellowknife and identifies as half Dene from her mother’s side.
She sees the collaboration with youth as key to building a sense of “identity, self-worth, and pride.” She says it’s important to celebrate Indigenous culture and have public spaces dedicated to doing so.
“We all know stories of what’s happening in Canada and why there is such an imbalance and there are so many Indigenous people who have challenges,” she says.
Projects like this help to “cultivate a sense of celebration in Indigenous stories,” she added.
Brian Kowikchuk, an Inuvialuit artist from Inuvik, sees the project as “a healing tool.”
He says the fact that a number of backgrounds – in both art and culture – are coming together to collaborate make it a great learning opportunity for all involved.
Each mural team has a theme related to strong communities because, as Yakeleya-Newmark says “to have a healthy, strong community, we need every part of our community to be healthy and strong.”
Kowikchuk’s team mural will be about honouring people in the LGBTQ2S+ and other Indigenous ways of being.
As the teams have only been assigned in recent weeks, they have yet to nail down what exactly that will look like, though Kowikchuk says the four of them will look to “how our ancestors had honoured the people, and how we honour them now – bridging the gap between then and now through art.”
Other mural themes include: strong women, strong men, strong children and babies, strong elders, and strong families.
Kowikchuk’s team theme was assigned as a result of his own identity as a gay Indigenous man.
“Over the years I have worn many caps,” he says, “most of them colourful.”
He says projects like these are “empowering for our people,” and serve as a reminder that together we are stronger.
Ahead of the mural painting next summer, teams will continue to brainstorm, share stories, and collaborate on planning their installations. The mural painting will take place over one week next summer as the artists come together to their respective sites and put their blueprints into action.
Support for this project came from a number of partners including the City of Yellowknife, CloudWorks, Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, MakeWay, NWT Arts, Tree of Peace and Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, and the NDN Collective.