Art Seen: Being serious about play is no joke for Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
By Kevin Griffin
The Vancouver Sun
April 29, 2016
Craft, copper and platinum leaf on oars and rowboat, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.
Being an effective trickster takes more than irreverence to pull off. To do it well enough so you're not simply offending people, it means knowing and respecting the tradition you're working in.
The trickster artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas works in old Haida visual and narrative traditions that he reframes in a contemporary way.A good example are works in the Coppers from the Hood series. They're everyday car hoods embossed with copper leaf and painted with his version of traditional two-dimensional formlines and ovoids used in Northwest Coast art. The copper refers to the historic Coppers which were shield-like objects made from copper that chiefs displayed at potlatches as symbols of wealth and influence. But it crucially points out in trickster fashion how values on the Northwest Coast have changed: rather than coppers, cars are now among the new forms of status.
Naaxin, Mazda car hood and copper leaf, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas at The Seriousness of Play at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.
Photo: Chris Fadden
One of his Coppers from the Hood (above) series is part of a solo show at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. The Mazda hood air scoop has been incorporated into the stylized figurative design: the flashy blue colour of the rectangular scoop has become the mouth of a Northwest Coast creature with painted black and blue eyes and a nose above. This hood is called Naaxin, the Haida word for traditional robes worn by chiefs that are better known as Chilkat blankets.
The Copper from the Hood series are among Yahgulanaas' best known works. Versions of his 'Haida hoods' are in the collections of both the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery is called The Seriousness of Play. The small exhibition of works explore the idea of the links between apparently contradictory values of playfulness and seriousness.
A Sailing Light (below with Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas) depicts a ship with billowing sails covered in fantastic, biomorphic forms that includes an oval shape that can be seen as two different faces depending on your point of view. The mixed media collage is built on texts such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People - which the Canadian government still hasn't adopted - and a report on the state of Indian reserves and reservations in North America. Words and images play peekaboo with one another over the work's surface. A Sailing Light is displayed away from the wall so you can look at the back where the canvas and supports are covered in a collage of maps of North American sites taken from the pages of Rand McNally atlases. The Sailing Light recalls the arrival of foreign sailing ships on the Northwest Coast and the continuing efforts of indigenous and European cultures to resolve themselves into something new.
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas at his exhibition The Seriousness of Play at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.
Reversing up and down, front and back and the usual way objects are displayed is another theme in the exhibition. Next to A Sailing Light is Tongues which literally has no up or down. It's one of Yahgulanaas' two-dimensional rotational works designed with no 'top' or 'bottom.' The rotational work in the gallery is on a swivel that allows the viewer to swing it around to 'hang' it whatever way the viewer wants. What looks like an ocean becomes the ground when the work is flipped 180 degrees. The work's Northwest Coast figures look like they're trying to resolve themselves into a new form.
"You can see how the figures shift," he said in an interview in the gallery as he spun the work around.
"Yet it's the same figures. It reveals different aspects that weren't seen before. It's a way of looking at the world - whether it's Syrian refugees, indigeneity or Canadians looking at one another.
"We thought we knew what was going on but really we didn't. We just rotate the reference point - which is ourselves since that's all we can rotate - then we can see things that are dramatically different."
One of the challenges in showing work at the Bill Reid Gallery is dealing with the odd geometry of the building. Its south-facing windows and high ceiling make it a difficult place to show art. But one of the gallery's limitations has been overcome by using part of the empty volume overhead to display a work. It's a practical solution and one that makes viewers look up at an unusual angle to see art.
Hanging with the prow down is a contemporary version of a fishing rowboat (see above) made by Gwilisa, a boat builder in Old Masset in Haida Gwaii. It hearkens back to a time in the early 1900s when there was a much more intimate relationship between fishers and salmon - and a more sustainable one.
Yahgulanaas has turned a mundane fishing boat into an art object called Craft by covering its oars in platinum and the boat in copper leaf and hanging it vertically from the ceiling. It's also a bit threatening in the way it hangs in space between heaven and earth.
Go to Hell Honky started out as a Christmas Card modified by Bill Reid and given to Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas when he was chief counsellor of Old Massett, Haida Gwaii. It's one of works in The Seriousness of Play at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.
One of the most trickster like objects in the exhibition doesn't give away its cheekiness at first. It looks like a typical bentwood box in a glass display case. Made in the traditional way from one plank of cedar steamed and bent to create the four sides of the box, the outside has simplified, graphic-like Northwest Coast formlines and shapes in black on a copper leaf background.
What sets it apart is the title.
"It's called Con-tinu-Uma," Yahgulanaas said. "Uma is Haida for defecating.
"So what I'm saying it's a continuous shit - a continuous process. You have to buy into the playfulness and not get too hung up on the right kind of art talk."
While Yahgulanaas is serious about making his work playful, nothing he makes is a joke.
"It's not easy to take sacred or familiar ways of doing things and find ways to disrupt that," he said.
"You have to have a whole lot of faith in what you're doing. You have to be very sensitive to what people have invested in ways of looking at the world. It's a risky business - it's work. The reason why it works for me is because I make it play."
The catalogue for the exhibition The Seriousness of Play will be launched at the gallery at 1 pm Saturday, June 4.
The exhibition originated with the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Linagaay.
The Seriousness of Play continues until Sunday, Oct. 2.
Detail from the story RED by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas at his exhibition The Seriousness of Play at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.
The War of the Blink (2006)
Copper from the Hood (2011)
Naaxin Copper (2013)