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Joseph Tisiga wins inaugural Yukon Prize for the arts


Joseph Tisiga, whose paintings and drawings explore ideas of Indigenous and colonial history, identity and culture, has won the inaugural Yukon Prize for Visual Arts.

Tisiga was among six artists on the shortlist for the $20,000 prize. He was named winner on Saturday, selected by a three-person jury of experts from outside Yukon.

“Man, I’m really thankful,” Tisiga said on accepting the award on Saturday evening, which was also his 37th birthday.

He said he was excited to be considered for the award alongside the other five finalists — Tlingit carver Ken Anderson; multidisciplinary artists Amy Ball and Krystle Silverfox; fashion designer Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro and sculptor Veronica Verkley. 

“I think it shows, you know, just what’s going on out here. There’s lots of really great, great work, big thinkers,” Tisiga said.

Tisiga grew up in Yukon and is a member of the Kaska Dena Nation. He’s now based in Montreal since moving there two years ago, but says Whitehorse will always be his home.

He describes much of his work as narrative or story-based. He’s done a lot of drawing and watercolour but says he’s lately been exploring more “sculptural or assemblage-based work.”

Another of Tisiga’s pieces in the finalists exhibit: ‘Untitled series of 25 astroturf panels,’ 2020. (Joseph Tisiga)

“A lot of it sort of looks at the conflict between First Nation and colonial histories,” he said.

His artist’s statement on the Yukon Prize website describes how he’s most interested in “ephemeral qualities of living in the Yukon, [rather] than by the land or aesthetic characteristics of the geography that artists in the Yukon may typically respond to.

“I am motivated by an effort to contribute to the dialogue around First Nation/’Indigenous’ identity and culture, and its complex intersections to the present world,” it reads.

Tisiga also says he’s inspired by how Kaska history and culture, typically more oral-based, can be translated and interpreted in a modern, visual-based culture.

“There’s a lot of complicated issues in there. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” he said.

‘Astonishing’ response to prize

The biennial Yukon Prize was announced last year by Whitehorse couple Julie Jai and David Trick, who said they came up with the idea as a way to give back to their community and help raise the profile of the territory’s artists.

Speaking at Saturday’s award presentation, Jai said that she and Trick had long admired the talent in Yukon.  

“We enjoy seeing shows, visiting artists in their studios, seeing what they’re working on and asking what they’re going to be doing next,” Jai said. 

“If you really love something, you want to share it with others.”

David Trick and Julie Jai announce the winner at Saturday’s gala. The Whitehorse couple founded the Yukon Prize as a way to support and increase the profile of Yukon artists. (Mike Thomas/Yukon Art Centre)

Trick said when they started talking about their idea to others, the response was “astonishing.”

“So many people encouraged us right from the start and shared their advice and expertise so that we could design this prize in a way that would be right for the Yukon,” Trick said.

“We weren’t even organized well enough to have a formal fundraising campaign, but every once in a while, a cheque would arrive from somebody who wanted to be part of what we were doing.”  

 Tisiga said he was excited just to win, but “the money’s pretty great as well.”

“Support like this, you know, it really does go a long way,” he said.

“And I kind of hope the prize can maybe encourage the Yukon art-buying community to you know, look at supporting the practices of people here to experiment more and, you know, hopefully put their money into that local support.”

Jai said the Yukon Prize will continue to be handed out every other year “for as many years as it seems to be doing some good.”

Speaking on Saturday, she advised other artists that the nomination period for the 2023 prize will open in just over a year.

“So I hope you’re working on your projects,” she said.

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