Artist Portrait: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas


Galleries West

Artist Portrait


BRITISH COLUMBIA: Meddling in the Museum, July 10 to December 31, Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Photos: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

It was a typical day at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology. Patrons gazed at the west coast totem poles, the painted masks and carved feast bowls. Bill Reid's depiction of the Haida creation story, with Raven perched atop a clam shell, the first people crawling out below was in the background, and artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas explained how he was about to turn things upside down.

"See this 27-foot canoe," he pointed at a boat carved in 1985 by Reid and others. "We're flipping it over and tying it to the top of an 11-foot Pontiac Firefly."

A white-haired passerby took a step back, "Oh, no!" she said. "You can't be." But he could and he did and this patron's exclamation was exactly the reaction Yahgulanaas wanted.

Meddling in the Museum, the collective name for three site-specific installations, is Yahgulanaas's invited but cheeky response to the act of collecting and keeping cultural treasures.

Coppers from the Hood - Two Sisters

Coppers from the Hood - Two Sisters, 2007, Dodge Dynasty and Chevrolet Geo Metro car hoods, copper leaf, 204 cm X 130 cm

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

The University of British Columbia-based museum is undergoing a $56-million renewal and contemporary visual arts curator Karen Duffek says "it seemed like the perfect time to invite this artist/trickster in to mix things up, to twist and challenge, to raise questions and start new conversations."

Known for his Haida Manga, a unique art form that mixes Haida narratives and graphic forms with Japanese comic-book style, Yahgulanaas has made a career out of messing with stereotypes - idealized or disparaging - about indigenous people.

Raised with both Scottish and Haida heritage on Haida Gwaii, Yahgulanaas spent a brief period at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design) in the 1970s. After an instructor told him "traditional" Haida artists do not use chainsaws and household paint, the young artist decided he would be better served learning from his own people. He returned to the islands to create art with Robert Davidson and was then swept into an intense period of Haida political activism.

In 2000, he returned full-time to the city and a career in art. Now his Tales of the Raven manga series has exploded in popularity in Japan and is gaining recognition in Canada as well. Not restricted to the printed page, Yahgulanaas's art has also appeared in prestigious shows such as Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2006 and at Expo in Japan in 2005.

At MOA patrons will encounter an installation called "Coppers from the Hood." Four car hoods, welded to look like traditional copper shields, are mounted on pillars in the entranceway. Decorated with real copper flake and Yahgulanaas's distinctive graphic style, the pieces feature Haida manga characters whose antics flow throughout the show.

"Cliff" personifies the seaside peninsula the museum sits on and represents the ever-shifting interplay between the institution and the Musqueam people who lay claim to the territory. In one scene, he sits in and at the same time carries a canoe laden with archetypes like the suited, urban stereotype Richard Cranium (a play on the nickname for Richard and the thing on top of your neck).

Inside the museum, "Bone Box" is made from old collection boxes. Yahgulanaas turned them over and painted the other side, and the 12 panels are mounted in rows and held together with discarded museum shelving. The location of this graphic, narrative collage is critical says Yahgulanaas, because patrons can see a hint of something beyond. By turning copper cranks on the side, viewers can see past the piece to the ancient cedar poles taken from indigenous lands.

In one of the panels, a warrior-like figure reaches through the traditional Haida form-line and pulls Cranium back into this world. In this and other ways, Yahgulanaas challenges the idea of traditional, a notion to which many art patrons still cling.

For "Pedal to the Meddle," he had the Pontiac Firefly (named after the indigenous leader and an insect) professionally painted with a concoction made from argillite dust. Yahgulanaas's friend, Old Masset-based carver Ronnie Russ, collected the dust over 30 years of working with the soft black slate, yielding three cans of paint. The car, positioned on the ramp of the Bill Reid Rotunda, is perched in a getaway pose, complete with skid marks on the floor. "It looks like we're trying to steal the canoe back," says Yahgulanaas.

For all his commentary, Yahgulanaas is not against museums. He sees the culture of the institution, like all cultures, changing. Human remains and some cultural treasures are being returned to indigenous communities around the world, he notes, due in part to the work of some of his compatriots at home on Haida Gwaii.

"Before, it was just them taking and us complaining," he says. "But now there is more of an active conversation." And if there's a central theme to the body of Yahgulanaas's work, it would be finding a way to keep people talking.

Pedal to the Meddle

Pedal to the Meddle, 2007, Pontiac Firefly, autobody paint, argillite dust, copper leaf.
Red-Cedar Canoe, 1985, by Bill Reid, assisted by Guujaaw, Simon Dick, and others, MOA Nb1.737.
Approx: .95 m high, 1 m wide, 7.3 m long