Sobey Art Award 2022: Krystle Silverfox
At a glance, the object hanging on display is clearly a Hudson’s Bay blanket. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that the object is something else entirely. It appears to be caught in suspension between processes of remaking and unmaking; of reclamation and disavowal.
The blanket has a muted palette, cream-coloured with four bands across: black, bistre, taupe and rosy grey. The company’s signature coat of arms, glistening gold, sits inverted in the upper-right corner, almost negligible yet intentionally exposed. The blanket appears to have been precisely cut into a long fringe that hangs to the floor, where decommissioned pennies are scattered among its threads. It gives the dramatic impression that the blanket is unravelling spectacularly into copper. The title of this work is All That Glitters is Not Gold… .
The year is 2019. The blanket sits in the window of the Audain Gallery at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, located on the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Students and faculty often refer to the campus as “SFU Woodward’s,” alluding to the department store that once stood on that site during the Eastside’s heyday. Such days have long passed. It’s now one of Canada’s most economically insecure neighbourhoods. Thirty-one percent of its population is Indigenous.
When the blanket was installed in 2019, the official name of the campus – the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, was freshly outdated. Goldcorp Inc., the Vancouver-headquartered mining company, had been recently acquired by US-based Newmont Corporation. To the casual gallery-goer, these multibillion-dollar transactions seem far removed from the gallery space, and the neighbourhood in which it sits. The connections between them, however, are clear to Krystle Silverfox – the artist behind All That Glitters is Not Gold… and Wolf Clan member of the Selkirk First Nation.
Formerly known as the Hucha Hudan people (Flatland People), the Selkirk First Nation adopted their name from the landscape at Fort Selkirk, the Hudson’s Bay trading outpost briefly established in the mid-1800s at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers. Though that particular settlement is now a historic site, settler exploitation of Selkirk land persists today, notably, in the form of intensive resource extraction.
The Selkirk First Nation has brokered agreements with the mining companies excavating their land, receiving royalties and securing employment contracts for their members. Even so, corporate-citizenship platitudes crafted by PR departments shroud the pressures, the power imbalances, the economic imperatives for First Nations engineered through years of enforced disparity and the severe impacts of mining economies on Northern Tutchone ways of life. Silverfox cuts through this shroud to incisively expose these tensions. They thrum at the heart of her recent work.
Silverfox was raised in Vancouver, in and near the Downtown Eastside. Across a dazzling array of media including photography, sculpture, textile and digital collage, Silverfox responds to her own lived circumstances as an urban Indigenous woman, while also reconnecting to her Nation’s traditions and territories. Her work has garnered acclaim for its clarity and dexterity; but importantly, the artist bears witness to the North. She refocuses critical attention on places and people often underrepresented in Canadian discourses.
For many Canadians, the mines that gouge the northern territories – and the troubled relationships between First Nations, crown governments, and the corporations that beget them – are simply out of sight, out of mind. Silverfox’s work is politically crucial. With All That Glitters Is Not Gold…, the artist centres her Nation’s social and economic realities in the viewers’ awareness. Alongside its allusion to copper mining is a reference to potlach traditions of cutting a blanket in half in order to share it – a custom the artist learned from her grandmother. The blanket is stretched on a wood frame, like a moosehide being tanned. Silverfox indigenizes the Hudson’s Bay blanket – a symbol of colonial wealth – through matrilineal techniques associated with care.
Likewise, Silverfox’s still-life photograph, Royal Tease (2020), possesses a rich visual symbology. The cluttered and abandoned picnic suggests negotiations gone awry. Set upon territorial maps, the dishes – signifiers of the Canadian government and British Empire – are juxtaposed with Northern Tutchone medicine. Yet, even the fraught items depicted – the English teacup, the copper kettle – are borrowed from family members: the artist’s sister and grandma. As in her alterations to the Hudson’s Bay blanket, Silverfox foregrounds matriarchal learning and sororal sharing. Her work centres Indigenous women.
The artist’s 2018 series tth’i’ yáw nan (threads beads land) elegizes the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls forcibly disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Photographs of places known to Silverfox are out-of-focus; the relationship to land is estranged. Beads are strewn across the photographs from broken strings, evoking acts of violence.
Similar themes recur in Silverfox’s forthcoming works, featuring willow boughs bound in red yarn. Immediately, they evoke the red dress: the emblem of the MMIWG crisis. They also register as earth bleeding. Silverfox deftly weaves together sexual and environmental justice, calling to mind the high rates of violence against Indigenous women and LGBTQ+ people in Canada’s north: violence perpetuated by itinerant, single men. Such is but one of many unintended consequences of the mines.
In 2017 Goldcorp’s Coffee Gold proposal to construct one of the world’s largest open-pit goldmines was rejected because they failed to consult with affected First Nations. Yet, as of spring 2022, the project is slated to proceed under Newmont. The Yukon’s hydroelectricity likely won’t be sufficient to power the project, which would rely instead on fossil fuels. Over 100 kilometres of new road will cut through wilderness, connecting the site to Dawson City and placing year-round traffic in the paths of caribou migrations, not to mention giving recreational visitors unprecedented access to the Selkirk First Nation’s lands and waters. A camp will house four hundred workers at a time.
This project will bring jobs to people in need of income. It will also bring consequences conspicuously absent from the press releases. The proposal promises to “monitor” adverse effects, but is slight on how such effects might actually be reversed.
And when these issues are swept to Canada’s peripheries, Krystle Silverfox’s work – aesthetically powerful, quietly activist – pulls them back to the heart of the debate. She centres the Yukon and the Tutchone Peoples, drawing the provocative and necessary links between her ancestral territory and her childhood home; between billion-dollar acquisitions and misogynistic harm. Such connections form a web in which all of Canada – and, arguably, the modern world – is enmeshed.
The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada, from October 28, 2022 until March 12, 2023, with the winner announced at a gala ceremony on November 16, 2022. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 20232 published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.