Haida Art Hopes to Inspire Engagement


The Ubyssey

November 9, 2007

Meddling in the Museum by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Photo: Kellan Higgins

If you visit the Museum of Anthropology this month you'll be bumping into a parked Pontiac Firefly with a canoe tied to the roof. The piece, a part of artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's new Meddling in the Museum exhibit, is more than just a fusion of the old and the new, though. Instead the exhibit is highly symbolic, dealing with the individual and cultural conciliation of settlers and indigenous peoples.

On the carpet sits the gutted, copper-foiled, argillite-dusted Pontiac Firefly. Strapped to its roof is the traditionally designed and decorated Haida canoe. The carpet is stained with a skid mark as the wheels turn off away from the viewer.

"What we have is a car that could be driving in from Surrey with a canoe on the top heading up towards Cultus Lake for the weekend. It suggests the accessibility for the regular Canadian to connect themselves to the ongoing story of indigenous and settler relations. The marriage of the Canadian and the indigeni can be accessible to us all. It need not be demonised. There is the opportunity for us all to fashion a wonderful, unique, democratic relationship that need not be informed by grand political objectives."

This piece, entitled "Pedal to the Meddle," is situated in front of Bill Reid's famous carving, "The Raven and the First Men." The concrete pedestal holding Reid's famous sculpture stands out behind the parked shell of the Pontiac, a juxtaposition that Yahgulanaas clearly intended.

He believes the symbols that he presents can help lead to a mutual coming together of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in a willing and democratic manner.

"You have the Aboriginal Relationship and Reconciliation Ministry. It is incorrectly named. Reconciliation is something that happens when two pieces which were once together are ripped apart. You reconcile after divorce. What we're talking about is creating the first formal relationship between settlers and indigenous people. Particularly for the Haida, Canada has never come to the table.

"The hugeness of the moment is that we get to do this for the first time. We get to fashion our formal structural relationship freely given and freely consented to by both sides. And that's called conciliation. It's the virgin moment."

Yahgulanaas has two other pieces at the exhibit. One entitled "Coppers from the Hood" is a series of copper shields constructed from discarded moter vehicle hoods, decorated in a style that incorporates traditional Haida formlines with Japanese manga, while telling a number of traditional Haida stories of peace and exploration.

"The Haida have a long history of working on Japanese fishing and hunting boats, and the stories that come back are of Haida being treated as people. Haida people going into bars and being served a drink. Haida people going in to stores and not being regulated to the 'Indian' side of the store. I see Haida Manga, therefore, as a good synthesis, a very natural pacific sort of blending of styles."

Yahgulanaas's final piece, "Bone Box" was built from discarded plywood boxes. It has a lever on it which, when pulled, rotates all of the tiled components aside, revealing the ocean below. "You grab the handle, you pull the handle, and you change the entire piece. My vision of the panels disappears, and you see things behind it, you see totem poles and cedar boxes, you look out through Arthur Erickson's box, i.e. the Museum of Anthropology, and you look out on the Salish Sea. You do that as the viewer, and what you see is entirely what you want to see. You can see it how you see it, and you can claim the authority to have your own vision, which is one of my most important messages."

Yahgulanaas's exhibit will be on display until the end of December, though the museum may extend the date. Also, "Bone Box" has been purchased by the museum, and thus may be available for more permanent display.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's website, with additional art and a biography, is located at http://mny.ca/ .