Haida Art, Then and Now


Georgia Straight


June 8, 2006

Amid the usual flurry of pre-exhibition activity at the Vancouver Art Gallery, painters, preparators, curators, all working in quick concert to prepare Raven Travelling for its public opening this Saturday (June 10), unusual cross-cultural elements emerge. Billed by the VAG as the most comprehensive exhibition of Haida art ever assembled, it is also a ground-breaker for that institution in terms of cooperation with a First Nations community.

The curatorial team that has been labouring for the past couple of years to pull together the summer blockbuster, subtitled Two Centuries of Haida Art, comprises four Haida and three non-Haida members. "It was a collaborative process," says Vince Collison, "more than any project I've been involved with before."

Collison, who is leading a tour through the exhibition in progress, was born and raised in Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) and is a member of the Maaman Gitanee Eagle clan. He is an active politician and is also cochair of the Haida Repatriation Committee. (He and cochair Lucille Bell, another member of the curatorial team, have been instrumental in reclaiming the remains of Haida ancestors from seven museums in the United States and Canada.)

Working as a curatorial assistant on Raven Travelling has taken up much of Collison's past year and although he misses his home in Old Massett, "Moving to Vancouver was one of the most harrowing things I ever did," he says with a laugh, he is charged with conviction. "We've done a very good job of getting as much of the Haida voice into this exhibition as possible."

That voice is literal, including Haida translations and citations in a number of text panels and labels throughout Raven Travelling; oral histories recounted by Haida elders, broadcast in a corner of the gallery; two Haida animateurs who will help guide visitors through the show; and Haida essays, poems, stories, and interviews in the accompanying publication. But voice is also symbolic: curatorial team members Bell, Nika Collison, and Irene Mills, all based in Haida Gwaii, worked closely with VAG staff to decide what was to be exhibited, what it represented, and how to establish its meaning and context.

"Everybody has different strengths that they brought to the table," remarks Daina Augaitis, VAG chief curator and associate director, who has joined Vince Collison on this preview of the exhibition. "Like any project where you have a number of people, everybody had to stretch," she adds. "As a result, we have a show that couldn't have happened any other way."

One of Raven Travelling's accomplishments, Collison suggests, is the step it takes toward reclaiming cultural identity for the Haida. "What you're going to see in this exhibition is so much a part of who we are," he explains. "We're still learning about the collections we have out there in the world. In terms of history, you're catching us at the cusp."

The potential of that telling is reflected in the show's 262 historic and contemporary objects, borrowed from public and private collections across North America and Europe. The range is immense, from a 19th-century canoe to a tiny boxwood maquette by the late Bill Reid, and from a 16th-century stone mortar for grinding native tobacco to 21st-century "Haida Manga" by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. "He's been publishing in Korea and Japan and selling thousands and thousands of books," Augaitis says. "He's an absolute star," adds Collison. Other contemporary innovations and hybrids include Don Yeomans's prints and carvings, which combine Haida and Celtic designs, and Hazel Wilson's politically charged button blankets.

Also on display are two dramatic transformation masks, one carved by Charles Edenshaw, the most acclaimed Haida artist of the 19th century, the other inspired by it and carved by Jim Hart, one of the most admired Haida artists of the present day. The show boasts many other riches: headdresses and frontlets inlaid with abalone shell, gold and silver jewellery, ceremonial robes, bentwood boxes, woven spruce-root hats and baskets, and intricately carved argillite platters.

To non-Haida eyes, their beauty is astounding. Still, in an essay in the show's companion book, Nika Collison warns against an "art for art's sake" approach to what's on view. Haida art, she insists, is completely integrated into Haida culture. She reiterates her cousin Vince's assertion of identity. "In its truest function," she writes, "our art represents who we are and where we come from."

As we pause in a small gallery to view some of the show's stellar argillite pieces, Peter Macnair walks past. The senior anthropologist and curator emeritus of the Royal British Columbia Museum has been working as what he calls a "facilitator-advocate" for the exhibition. He points out Canoe With Mythic Travellers, an argillite carving inlaid with bone. Measuring 18.3 centimetres high and 32.5 centimetres long, it was created by an unknown artist in about 1886 and depicts a canoe crowded with human and animal figures. This is the work, from the collection of the Vancouver Museum, that inspired Bill Reid's monumental bronze sculpture, The Black Canoe, installed at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1991. (A jade-coloured version sits in the international terminal at Vancouver International Airport.)

Against all the creative hubbub arou nd the production of this show, something in Macnair's passing observation speaks to the complicated relationship between Haida and non-Haida in the field of material culture. One of the 20th century's breakthrough aboriginal artists found inspiration in a 19th-century object, created on Haida Gwaii and tucked away for decades in a non-Haida museum. Not unlike the aspirations of Raven Travelling, Reid built his knowledge of Haida art upon the accomplishments of the past and the cultural reclamations of the present. Then he set it sailing toward the gleaming future.