Above/featured: Great Hall, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver – 5 May 2017 (6D1).
In Canada, National Aboriginal Day is held on or near the same day as northern summer solstice to celebrate language, culture, and tradition on the longest day of the year. In 1996, then Governor-General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc, proclaimed June 21 as National Aboriginal Day. In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the change to National Indigenous Peoples Day to include First Nations, Inuit, and Métis indigenous peoples.
To highlight some wonderfully engaging work by contemporary indigenous artists, I provide examples of art seen and exhibited in both Vancouver and Seattle.
- Sonny Assu
- Dana Claxton
- Joseph & Nahanee
- Marianne Nicolson
- Susan Point
- Bill Reid
- Singletary & Tamihana
- T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss
Sonny Assu: Southern Kwakwaka’wakw (Laich-kwil-tach), Wei Wei Kai band; born 1975.
Assu’s work explores the recent historical impact of the Canadian government’s residential schools program whose authorities took indigenous children away from their families in a program of institutionalized assimilation. His work also gives voice to his own experience of racism, but he also acknowledges and honours his grandmother, her memories and experiences.
From the Vancouver Art Gallery, the accompanying panel reads:
“Leila’s Desk” comprises a vintage 1930s school desk that was common to that era. Sonny Assu’s grandmother, Leila, attended a segregated “Indian day school,” which was part of the larger residential school program enacted by the Canadian government with the explicit intention of assimilating Indigenous children. Until the early 1940s, under mandate of the Indian Act, Indigenous people could only attend a residential or Indian day school up to the eighth grade, after which they were forced to exit the education system.
Leila was one of the first Indigenous students to be allowed to attend public high school in Canada. As told in the words of the artist: ‘On her first day, excited and nervous about her newly granted rights, she was confronted with an instance of racism that haunted all her life. When she entered the classroom she found a bar of Lifebuoy soap, left on her desk by a classmate. Her pride turned to shame, in the face of being deemed nothing more than a dirty Indian.’
In this work, the artist places a vintage bar of Lifebuoy soap atop the desk as an unflinching account of this racist gesture. However, he has also covered all of the cast-iron elements of the desk with copper leaf, drawing on the intense symbolic, economic, and material importance of copper to many Northwest Coast First Nations groups, as a way of honouring his grandmother and her experience.
As part of the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum is his 2006 work “Breakfast Series“. The caption reads:
Sonny Assu’s Breakfast Series appropriates the form of the familiar cereal box and adorns the box surfaces with commentary on highly-charged issues. The ‘pop art’-inspired graphics on the five cereal boxes contain recognizable imagery, but closer inspection reveals that Tony the Tiger is composed of indigenous form-line design elements; and that every box of Lucky Beads comes with “a free plot of land, a good source of trickery, and 12 essential lies and deceptions”. Assu’s light-hearted presentation exposes serious on-going social issues for First Nations people, including the environment, treaty rights, and land claims.
A highlighted exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (in early-2019), artist Dana Claxton explores “making space for Indigenous identity within art institutions” as “fringing the cube.” Using a variety of media, she communicates views about Indigenous history and spirituality with many references to her own Lakhota culture.
Joseph & Nahanee
From an old growth cedar log, Stan Joseph and Wes Nahanee created the Welcome Figure, a gift from the Squamish Nation to the city of West Vancouver to mark the location where ocean canoes would have likely gathered. The figure opens its arms wide to welcome everybody arriving from the Salish Sea.
“With open arms to all who pass our shores, this Welcoming Figure was raised at the first K’aya’chtn (gathering of ocean canoes). The Squamish Nation dedicated the figure to the citizens of West Vancouver on 25 July 2001 with this prayer:
In gratitude to all our Grandmothers
For all the teachings of our lands, history, of who we are.
For all the teachings in the ways we take care of one another as:
elders, parents, brothers, sisters and cousins, our children,
the future generations.
For all the teachings in the ways we share the wealth of the land,
the seas and the air.”
I first saw this work warmly illuminating the empty concourse late at night in the Academic Quadrangle at my alma mater of Simon Fraser University. It’s great to see her work presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery and exposed to more people.
Marianne Nicolson: Dzawada’enuxw, Scottish.
The Kwak’wala phrase “Wa’lasan xwalsa kan ne’kakwe” translates into the English title of this artwork, ‘Oh, How I Long for Home’, while also referencing the dawn. This double meaning could be interpreted as the rising sun ‘returning home’ each day and as a poetic assertion of Kwakwaka’wakw People’s sovereignty over their lands and waters, which includes Nicolson’s home community of Gwa’yi or Kingcome Inlet along the central coast of British Columbia in Canada. Yet the neon sign – which was, at one time, ubiquitous in the streets of Vancouver – is also a marker of urban life, a site of conflicted promise for Indigenous Peoples. Longing for home is an experience with which many can identify, one that’s further complicated when considering the unceded territories upon which British Columbia is built, and the impossibility of returning to a home prior to colonization.
Susan Point: Coast Salish, Musqueam; born 1951.
Working for over 35 years, Susan Point is a Coast Salish artist who has been expressing her First Nations heritage through art with a variety of materials. She uses ink, paper, wood, metal, ceramic, glass, stone, etc. to create drawings, prints, sculptures, and carvings. Her exhibition “Spindle Whorl” highlights the spindle whorl – a disk through which a central rod is inserted used to spin and weave – as a central element and foundation for her art. Susan Point’s work also appears throughout Vancouver: e.g., near the front entrance to the Museum of Anthropology; arrivals hall of YVR airport’s International Terminal; Vancouver Convention Centre East.
Bill Reid began exploring his Haida roots in his early-20s. His path to self-discovery would last the rest of his life, informing and influencing his expression and his art; he would become an expert at carving, goldsmithing, and sculpting. In the first image below, two pieces were constructed with red cedar found in great abundance within British Columbia; they’re on permanent display at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. At left is the stern of “tluu” (Haida canoe), completed in 1985 by Bill Reid and technicians Beau Dick, Simon Dick, and Gary Edenshaw. The canoe dimensions are 1.0 metre (3.3 feet) high, 1.0 metre (3.3 feet) wide, and 7.25 metres (23.8 feet) long. The “Haida bear” at right was completed in 1963 by Bill Reid who carved from a single block of wood. The bear measures 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) high, 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) wide, and 2.5 metres (8.3 feet) long. In the second image is a museum centrepiece highlighting a creation myth for the Haida people: “The Raven and the First Men” by Bill Reid stands under skylight and spotlights within the rotunda named after Reid.
Singletary & Tamihana
The sculpture “Canoe/Waka” (2007) is a cross-Pacific project between Tlingit (Alaska/BC) and Māori (New Zealand) peoples, led by Preston Singletary (Tlingit, born 1963) and Lewis Tamihana Gardiner (Māori, born 1972). Now as part of Singletary’s collection, the sculpture is made with blown and sand-carved glass, green pounamu (New Zealand jade), and red sealing wax. “Waka” is a Māori word for “canoe”. The exhibition signage reads as:
“Revivals of traditional watercraft-building among Pacific Northwest indigenous people and Māori of New Zealand have become a catalyst for composing songs and dances, creating masks and regalia, and reviving oral traditions. In Canoe/Waka, the artists pay homage to the canoe as a vessel of knowledge. Gardiner carves pounamu – associated with chiefs and expressions of peace – as the canoe prow while Singletary sand-carves the glass that forms the canoe’s structure.”
I do love seeing images of the sacred “honu”, right from the first time I stepped foot on Hawaii’s Oahu and the Big Island. And so, seeing the “honu” meant I sat down to watch the following, mesmerized by the gentle giant ancient creature.
T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss: Skwxwú7mesh, Stó:lō, Métis, Kanaka Maoli, Irish, Swiss.
The image of the video display shows the artist’s Hawaiian cultural and spiritual mentor, Happy Kahuna Pahia. In the light of dusk at Papa’iloa Beach on the leeward side of O’ahu in Hawaii, we see her lying beside a ‘honu’, a green sea turtle, who’s come to rest on shore and harden her shell after travelling great distances in the ocean.
The description is from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition “Transits and Returns” where T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss’ video installation was on display. As an artist and ethnobotanist, she was named by the Vancouver Public Library as Indigenous Storyteller in Residence for 2018.
I made all pictures above in 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019 with a Canon 6D mark1 (6D1) and a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime (X70). This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-erD.