Fluid Frames: The Hybrid Art of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Christopher Green

Art in America


November 2, 2017

Watercolor from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's book War of the Blink (Locarno Press, 2017)
Watercolor from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's book War of the Blink (Locarno Press, 2017)

The luscious watercolor illustrations in War of the Blink (Locarno Press, 2017), Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's new graphic novel, convey a story that was told by the Haida people "long before there was a Canada or a United States." Using his signature Haida manga style, a fusion of Indigenous visual traditions from the Pacific Northwest and the graphic format of Japanese comics, Yahgulanaas translates oral history into a fluid, nonlinear reading experience, highlighting themes that feel surprisingly relevant to today's geopolitical standoffs.

Yahgulanaas developed his hybrid style from a diverse set of influences. A descendant of the Haida master Charles Edenshaw, he has studied with Haida artists Robert Davidson and Jim Hart as well as Chinese brush painter Cai Ben Kwon. He is influenced by Edo-period ukiyo-e as well as contemporary Japanese graphic arts. By combining calligraphy's expressive lines and the narrative conventions of manga with the stylized figures of Haida crests and the spatial ambiguity of Northwest Coast Native abstract painting and carving, Yahgulanaas creates what he considers a pan-Pacific alternative to Western art and graphic literature.

Yahgulanaas's first graphic novel, the critically acclaimed Red (2010), retold the legend of a vengeful Haida leader. War of the Blink is narratively unrelated, though it also is rooted in the oral histories of the artist's community. An ambitious young man named Hem convinces his village to stage a sneak attack on an archipelago beyond the ocean's horizon that is said to overflow with wealth. A fisherman from those islands, Gunee, is given early warning by a fly that had stowed away on the approaching war canoe. When he spends a night on watch, he is nearly captured by the invading war party, only to be saved by his own people. A fierce duel between Hem and the champion of Gunee's village ensues, culminating in a tense stare-down that is broken only when the fly causes one warrior to blink, bringing a comical and peaceful conclusion to the hostilities. With a conflict engineered from a great distance, an unseen enemy known only by reputation, and the intensity of a standoff between two nations' leaders, the story has the same contours as today's conflicts--such as the threat of nuclear war between the United State and North Korea--while optimistically suggesting an amicable resolution.

The primary elements defining figures and abstract designs in Northwest Coast Native art are the swelling and narrowing bands known as "formlines." In War of the Blink, thick calligraphic bands of red, black, and midnight blue course across the pages and intermingle with the coastal Pacific Northwest landscapes and colorful characters that inhabit the spaces between them. Serving as horizon lines, scenic frames, and figural elements, the formlines emerge from ocean swells and canoe prows. Yahgulanaas often uses the term "frameline" rather than "formline" when talking about his work, as a reminder that the viewer is looking through an outline that does not respond to or define everything within it.

Yahgulanaas's use of framelines to define panels and connect pages and scenes is one of the ways in which he upends comic-book conventions. In Red, there are no gutters, square borders, or empty spaces. The use of text in War of the Blink is minimal. When present, it usually follows the curves of the framelines. Word balloons occasionally appear, though not as frequently as they did in Yahgulanaas's previous work, but the biggest new development in War of the Blink is the use of sparse text on otherwise blank pages that provide breaks in the story's visual continuity.

An illustration at the end of Red reveals that when each page is detached from the book and placed side by side in the correct arrangement, the heavy framelines create a single composition, which is based on a fifteen-foot-long watercolor original. The imagery of War of the Blink is likewise derived from a larger composition, a 2006 multi-panel watercolor of the same title, though its pages cannot be combined to make a reproduction of a painting. In the War of the Blink mural, the scenes that make up the narrative of the book are squeezed between the bold framelines that resolve across the panels into a stylized bearlike creature recognizable from Northwest Coast bentwood box designs. At one point a canoe seems to ride between two falling curves as if plunging down a waterfall. In an interview with curator Daina Augaitis, Yahgulanaas observed that "the study of Haida design is like the study of water because the basic theme is compression and expansion." In War of the Blink, this idea manifests in the fluid push and pull between the meandering framelines and the spaces they circumscribe. With the original 2006 composition, which lacks text, viewers must extrapolate the story by immersing themselves in the ebb and flow of the allover image. Following the swell of the framelines is a visual experience that evokes the feeling of being pulled along by the current of a good storyteller's words.

As a book, War of the Blink converts the roaming nature of the original composition into a hybrid narrative form. The story progresses in a roundabout way as the framelines cut back and link to the peripheral action of earlier scenes. To capture the swaying rhythm of the original, Yahgulanaas has repeated certain images and frames, inserted blank space, and constructed multipage montages depicting the movements of key figures (such as the flight lines of the little fly). Yahgulanaas has said his goal in his work is to create shared, intimate experiences that can be accessed and appreciated by audiences outside his community. An upcoming mural project for the Seattle Art Museum, titled The Carpenter's Fin, will extend that aspiration. Scheduled for completion in fall 2018, the watercolor-and-ink mural consists of 108 sections on six panels of mulberry paper and is about twenty feet long. The mural has been conceived as a book project as well, with each section corresponding to a page, so the large-scale public work will also be available to distant readers in bound form.

The playful nature of Yahgulanaas's work is visible in Yelthadaas (2010), a sculpture recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The work belongs to a series, "Coppers from the Hood" (2007-), that combines traditional ceremonial "coppers"--shield-shaped sheets of hammered metal that conveyed prestige among Northwest Coast tribes--with hoods of cars, which have displaced canoes as the primary mode of transportation and signifier of wealth on Haida Gwaii today. Yahgulanaas evokes the canoe's profile with the curving U-forms of found car hoods that he sheathes in copper or, in the case of Yelthadaas, platinum leaf. The work's title means "White Raven," one of Yahgulanaas's hereditary names, and the twisting form of the trickster Raven, who, according to Haida legend, brought light to the world, is depicted in black against the platinum. The piece is installed in the hallway connecting the Native North America and modern galleries of the museum; its location in this transitional space seems appropriate, as Yahgulanaas is one of only four Native American artists in the Met's modern and contemporary collection. Just as his presence exposes the obsolescence of the museum's departmental classifications, Yahgulanaas's works themselves, with their stylistic conflations, defy established categories.