By HEATHER RAMSAY
Winter, 2006In front of a fire pit in the Performance House at the old village site of Qay'llnagaay or Sea Lion Town, near Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, direct and indirect contributors to Raven Travelling gathered to celebrate the launch of the lavish coffee table book that coincides with a national touring exhibit of the same name that celebrates two centuries of Haida art.
The celebration commenced when the Haida version of a wild man of the woods slipped into the room, two women screamed and the creature was ceremonially drummed out of the hall. Then the emcee spoke about which bathrooms were working in the still-to-be-completed, $25 million Haida Heritage Centre. It was a seamless mix of tradition and contemporary reality--like the book itself.
For the unprecedented exhibit, now touring across Canada, gold and silver bracelets, deeply-carved feast dishes, spruce root hats, argillite pipes and silk- screen prints were gathered from museums around the world.
And like the exhibit, Raven Travelling strives to place a myriad of works into social and artistic contexts. How these works were collected and the role these pieces of art play in Haida society, along with the role of the artist today, are themes that swirl throughout the text.
Giitsxaa, a carver, whose work in silver graces the pages of Raven Travelling, and whose grand pole stands front and centre on the beach at Qay'llnagaay, explained to me how important this type of book is to young artists. "When I started out in high school," he says, "there were five books available and they were all by Marius Barbeau."
Giitsxaa, 61, says he didn't choose to be an artist, he simply is one, but he envies the young artists of today. "I wonder what it would be like to start out with all of these books and knowledge that people were trying to suppress," he said. When he was growing up in Skidegate, there were carvers but they were less visible. The potlatch ban effectively silenced the political, social and economic system of the Haida and many young people were sent to residential schools.
Artist Jim Hart also talks of the importance of seeing these pieces of the past. His statement, quoted in Raven Travelling, comes from 2002 when several Haida treasures were repatriated to Haida Gwaii. "Our people, when they carved these pieces, they were survivors from the old sicknesses that were going around...The carvers that survived that--how they got together and worked on pieces to help record our history, and for us today to look at, to hang on to, to study, to talk about, because all that knowledge is in there. We look at [a piece], and study it, and talk to each other about it. If we're lucky, we have relatives that recognize the pieces and also know its history, even more so, and tell us the stories behind it... It's so important, the strength that comes through that."
The book features more words from the artists themselves including poems by Bill Reid and political leader Guujaaw and interviews with Robert Davidson, Don Yeomans, Isabel Rorick and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.
Yahgulanaas was on Haida Gwaii to attend clan business and naming ceremonies. He lives in Vancouver, amid concrete and glass, but when he spoke he was surrounded by cedar. "I see Raven traveling," he said. "I see him flipping out." By that, he means permeations of Raven are expanding everywhere, exporting Haida sensibilities beyond Haida Gwaii.
Yahgulanaas' art is ink on paper and the rude and funny stories he creates are rendered in a Japanese comic book style, rich with Haida symbols and imagery. "We haven't lost anything," he says. According to Yahgulanaas, the great masters of Haida art from two centuries ago are still here, as evidenced by Raven Travelling. "And they are still here through the names," he says.
Yahgulanaas notes the Haida, like the raven, are also travelling afar, gaining global recognition. "We are on the $20 bill," he says, referring to the image of Bill Reid's Black Canoe, the original of which stands outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. "And we have infiltrated the most militarily powerful city in the world. The Raven is about to erupt!"
Newly commissioned pieces in Raven Travelling include an impassioned essay by Haida Gwaii museum curator Nika Collison, the story of the repatriation of Haida ancestors by two key participants and advisors on the show Lucille Bell and Vince Collison, as well as a look at the evolution of Haida art by scholar Peter Macnair.
Elders, a precious resource on Haida Gwaii, provide a new telling of the Haida creation story in the Skidegate dialect using an alphabet they have been developing at a local language program. Raven Travelling is dedicated to the ancestors.