Book review: Making Mischief — Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Art and the Seriousness of Play, by Nicola Levell

Stuart Derdeyn

Vancouver Sun

November 26, 2021

Art and activism have always been intertwined, particularly in the work of contemporary Indigenous artists.

From reflecting the innumerable horrors spawned from assimilation policies of colonization to the rising power of the revitalization, rights and reconciliation taking place today, Indigenous artists play a key role in righting past wrongs and setting the course for the future. Naturally, this means that new traditions are arrived at by artists seeking to reflect the continuing evolution of their national cultures as they confront the past and move ahead.

One such creative force is Haida multimedia specialist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. The creator of the ingenious hybrid known as Haida manga, which blends topical Asian comic book illustration with traditional storytelling and design, is on the cutting edge of First Nations’ response to the global intercultural dialogue now taking place in many countries.

As Japanese academic Nobuhiro Kishigami notes in the forward to author and University of B.C. museum and visual anthropology Prof. Nicola Levell’s Mischief Making, Yahgulanaas’ art “addresses the collective memory of historical colonization; conflict; war; social, economic and cultural discrepancies; industrial resource development, and identity and climate change.”

Bringing in many examples of the artist’s multimedia creations, Levell’s text tackles the concept that hybridity in art can lead to new ways of viewing the world and what can be done to make it a better place. It’s both an interesting read and a visual treat to look at.

By documenting Yahgulanaas’ journey from 1970s environmental leader during the struggle for Haida sovereignty to the disrupter-staging “interventions” in exhibition spaces such as the Museum of Anthropology, where his contemporary Coppers from the Hood made from discarded car hoods have garnered a great deal of public attention, Mischief Making manages to look deeply at his art from both an academic and a personal position. What emerges is a portrait of the artist’s journey incorporating the intergenerational “joking relationship” found in his society into works of great import and not a little humour.

Preferring to attach the term hybridization to his work as it allows a fluidity between the traditional and modern that is far less limiting that modern/postmodern, Yahgulanaas has developed a form that Levell notes can “challenge the idea that art can be categorized and confined by national discourses, histories and boundaries.” His work manages to skirt easily applied denominations of “Western/non-Western” classification, as well as dismantling the elements of colonial systemic supremacy inherent in such applied category constructions as “Native” or “ethnic” art.

The artist frequently notes the ways in which modern-day Canada tries to market itself internationally on the “cultural currency” of Indigenous art and societies while failing to address the outstanding issues of the relationship between them and existing government structures. His work is all about rejecting singular cultural exclusivity as interpreted and reinforced since first contact, noting "… my work creates places for people to discover an emotional connection with other people, even when they feel those people are strange, distant and even alien."

From his many Haida manga books to large-scale installations or costume and set designs for cross-cultural performance pieces, Yahgulanaas’ work is meticulously analyzed by Levell to expose deeper levels of motivation in the work of one of the most consistently inventive contemporary Indigenous artists working in the world today.

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