Nahanni McKay is a Metis artist from Banff, Alberta. Having been born and raised in the Canadian Rockies, Nahanni’s creative and photo-based practice has focused on National Parks in Canada and the human impact on natural environments. Her work expresses how essential it is for humans to learn to coexist in order to prevent additional harm to the animals. During the summer of 2016, Nahanni worked at the Two Jack Main Campground near Banff National Park.
“That summer a female wolf with pups became human-food habituated in and around the campground,” said Nahanni. “As a campground attendant, I and my co-workers repeatedly directed campers to use the food lockers provided, to keep their campsites clean and not to leave BBQs out when not in the campsite, among other precautionary measures.” The wolf was eventually discovered and due to being deemed bold or aggressive, she was shot by the Park’s personnel in Loop 14.
“Tragically it wasn’t a clean shot and the wolf’s location was uncertain,” explained Nahanni. The artist explained that the wolf was eventually located but had taken a long time to die, and without a mother to care for them, her pups died as well.
“This experience had a lasting effect on me. Over the next two and a half years, I thought a great deal about these wolves. I was distressed by their suffering and ensuing deaths,” said Nahanni. “I questioned the location of the Two Jack campgrounds in a wildlife corridor; the almost impossible task of persuading thousands of campers to keep hundreds of campsites free of animal-attractants and the true purpose of a national park.”
“There is a line between the conservation efforts of Parks Canada, the wildlife preservation, but also camping,” said Nahanni. “When there is controlled land, you’re also controlling who can be there and what can be there.”
The artist created Loop 14 as an homage to the wolves lost to unnatural causes in the park that summer. Loop 14 is comprised of two images, and the finished piece is striking, impactful and ceremonial. Shot on film, the piece uses a borrowed hide and an eagle feather. “I wanted to smudge the wolf before I used the hide,” explained Nahanni. “The feather came from that process, and really lends itself to something I love about this work is that it came from a series of coincidences. The sun spots, the feather, it all came together naturally.”
Loop 14 is tender and emotional in the way it depicts the wolf. “Ultimately Loop 14 honours these wolves and seeks to bring peace to their spirits and to mine,” said Nahanni.
As with many artists during the pandemic, Nahanni used the time of isolation to find ways to create community and bring people together through art. “Covid-19 has caused a lot of stress on the world. There will be no doubt that there will be an influx of art coming from this unique era,” said Nahanni. “I got laid off like 80% of the town. I had a moment of, now what? and it was back to square one.” Nahanni used her time to create The Isolation Gallery, a project where people hung artwork in their windows.
“What it gave us at that time was a sense of community,” said Nahanni.
One of the greatest opportunities that came out of Nahanni’s work was an invitation to be a part of the Personal Structures exhibition in 2022 in Venice, Italy. This operates as a parallel exhibition to the Venice Biennale. “This no doubt is one of the biggest stepping stones in my career and my first international exhibition,” said Nahanni.
However, transporting your work to one of these exhibitions is no small feat. “Artists are expected to fund the way there and the way to participate in this exhibition,” said Nahanni. Not unlike the Biennale itself, known as the Olympics of Art, where artists are sponsored by their countries or alternatively have to procure the funds themselves.
“My full focus right now is that exhibition,” said Nahanni. “It’s how do I get that money? It’s how do I make this work? It would not be possible to achieve this dream without asking for financial support. Though most of the costs are covered by the European Cultural Centre the room to be rented is not. It is exactly $15,000 euros. Which is calculated to be around $23,000 CAD, this does not include gear, travel or materials.”
“I know it has been a hard year for all, and as awkward as it is asking for financial assistance any discussion about support would be greatly appreciated,” expressed Nahanni.
In addition to exhibiting Loop 14, Nahanni will be focussing on creating additional work in the same vein. “The next piece is about the bears,” said Nahanni. “Seven bears died last summer. I’m looking at the icefields parkway, where cars hit bears quite frequently.” With wildlife continually finding ways to adapt to their ever-shrinking land as humans continue to impede, finding ways to coexist are crucial for both humans and wildlife.
“When humans are absent, nature takes over,” said Nahanni.