When his elderly aunt and uncle died of food poisoning seven years ago, Robert Davidson and his family wanted to pay tribute in the old Haida way: a potlatch. The B.C. native artist carved the traditional masks intended to conjure the spirits of the deceased. And, in keeping with custom, the family scheduled the feast for one year after the couple’s death. Finally, on a cold November night, the ceremony began at the community hall in Masset, Davidson’s home town at the rugged north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. For most of the 500 locals who attended, the memorial potlatch was something that had died out in the past century. But there was Davidson chanting songs, in Haida. And there were Davidson’s wife, Dorothy Grant, and his friend Joe David wearing the brightly painted masks. “It was just like being in a trance,” recalls Grant. “I’ve never felt such power before. What the ceremony represented was, This is the last time we’re visiting you. Take a last look and say goodbye.’ The family just wept.” Added Grant, a Haida who designs clothing based on traditional potlatch garments: “Robert has an intuitive insight into ceremony. It’s as if he’s misplaced from another time.”
The most celebrated West Coast native artist of his generation, Davidson, 46, has fashioned a triumphant career out of his power to conjure. Most of his masks depict surreal animals or mythical Haida creatures like the grotesque, cod-eating Gagiit. His paintings and prints often portray the supernatural dealings of the trickster Raven. His totem poles evoke a hallucinatory realm where humans and animals are serenely interconnected. But the artist has wrought his greatest stroke of Haida magic upon himself. He is the product of a father, Claude Davidson, who had his language and sense of heritage beaten out of him at residential school. The artist himself wept as an adolescent when he learned that he was Indian (because they were always the villains in cowboy movies). Now, Davidson is a sort of Renaissance man of Haida art and ritual, a walking repository of the rich culture that was all but obliterated by contact with the white world.
Along with carver Bill Reid, Davidson has spearheaded a new wave of artistic creativity among natives from British Columbia’s Northwest Coast. At the same time, he is helping to revive his people’s song, dance and potlatch traditions. Last month, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) opened a major show that celebrates the amazing breadth of Davidson’s achievement (the show runs until Sept. 26, then moves to Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization in December). Yet the restless Davidson continues to question himself. He wonders about the value of exploring the magic and spirituality of his heritage in a world where “technology is the air we breathe, the monster—it’s the Gagiit.” Then, with typical humor, he adds: “It’s sure a lot of work being an Indian these days.”
Exhausted from laborious preparations for the VAG show, Davidson says that he is, in fact, turning down some commissions and trying to let his creativity lie fallow for a while. One sunny afternoon last week, he was puttering in his cavernous studio near White Rock, B.C., putting the finishing touches on an amberlith, a screen for making prints. He lives in nearby South Surrey with Grant, 38, and his two children from his first marriage, Sara, 20, and Ben, 17. Outside the workshop, in a wooded lot bordering the Little Campbell River, lie four cedar logs— potential totem poles—two of them imposing specimens measuring five and seven feet in diameter. The artist, who is as comfortable wielding a chain saw as he is fine carving tools, has graceful, surprisingly unmarked hands. He confesses that at one point he wanted nothing more than to be a truck driver, perhaps hauling logs like the cedars in the yard. “That was all I wanted to do, turn on at 8, turn off at 5,” he said. “Being where I am now, you can’t really turn off. It’s a continual movie that’s happening.”
Evidence of Davidson’s 34-year run of creativity is gloriously on view at the VAG. The show, which gets its title, Eagle of the Dawn, from the artist’s Haida name, Goiud San Gians, features 208 pieces, beginning with a miniature totem pole that Davidson carved when he was 13. On display are totem-pole models, carved wooden panels, bronze sculptures, pieces of jewelry in silver and gold, painted deer-hide drums, prints and paintings in gouache and watercolor. Says the retrospective’s curator, Ian Thom: “His sense of design is almost flawless. There are not very many people who function so well and at such a high level in so many activities. You can see it in the finish of his objects—these things are astoundingly well-crafted.”
All of the work is distinctively Haida, combining drama and otherworldliness in sinuous lines that seem almost to dance. But the VAG show makes clear that Davidson is an innovator who has pushed the boundaries of classic Haida style. He has brought asymmetry, new colors and new content to the tradition. Whereas in the past Haida art depicted mainly animals and people, Davidson at
times makes personal statements or addresses purely formal concerns. The 1973 print Sara’s Birth Announcement is a powerful depiction of Davidson’s first wife, Susan, as a part-raven, part-human figure grasping her shins while giving birth to their daughter. Some, more recent paintings, like Bring Back the Salmon (1992), evoke overtly political concerns, while others are largely or entirely abstract.
Davidson says that he hasn’t consciously set out to revise Haida style. “I went through a period when I weighed whether something is Haida or not, whether it’s traditional or not,” he recalls. “I don’t ask those questions any more. It’s like speaking a language. You don’t say, ‘Can I say this?’ or ‘Can I say that?’ because you know you’re a master of it.” It is an artistic language that had scarcely been heard for most of this century, until the arrival of Reid, a former CBC broadcaster, who is now 73, and Davidson, and others in their wake. They are the inheritors of an impressive creative legacy. When Europeans first arrived in the Queen Charlottes in the 1770s, they encountered a secure, complex society with a highly developed artistic tradition. Even such everyday items as canoes, fish clubs, spoons and bowls were cut with intricate designs. In 1791, French trader Etienne Marchand wrote that Haida art “bespoke a taste and perfection which we do not expect to find in countries where the men seem still to have the appearance of savages.” He also observed “painting everywhere, everywhere sculpture.” Art was so much a part of life, Davidson notes proudly, that the Haida have no word for it.
Enthusiastic traders, the Haida initially prospered through contact with white men. But contact also meant social upheaval and, increasingly, the abandonment of traditional ways. Disaster struck in the form of a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s. By 1915, there were fewer than 600 Haida (their numbers have since expanded to more than 3,000 on the Queen Charlottes). Those who were left had become Christians and abandoned the potlatch, an all-embracing social ritual that the federal government banned in 1884 on political and religious grounds. The ban was not lifted until 1951. “The potlatch was our supreme court,” says Davidson. “It was where all the laws were established, reestablished, hashed out.”
Despite the disruptions, Haida carving continued into the 20th century, but mostly for the curio market. Davidson’s great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) is widely regarded as one of the last great Haida carvers. Still, Davidson’s grandfather, Robert Sr., and his father both became full-time carvers in their later years. And Davidson, who was bom in a Haida community in Alaska but grew up in Masset, took it up when he was 13, on the insistence of his father.
It was not until he went to high school in Vancouver that he became aware of the golden age of Haida art. Seeing pieces at the Vancouver City Museum was a revelation, recalls Davidson. “I was absolutely awestruck by the quality. It was just mind-blowing for me.” Before moving on to art college, Davidson served an 18-month apprenticeship with Reid, beginning in 1966. He was already selling his carvings, and also worked as a
carver at the Eaton’s store in Vancouver, making miniature totem poles and charging $8 an inch. But the artist recalls feeling a certain emptiness then, a sense of loss that he also detected among the elders in Masset. So, in 1969, he set out to create a link to the past: a totem pole. With the help of his younger brother, Reg, also a carver, Davidson spent three months making a 40foot pole for the community—the first one to be raised there in almost 90 years. “That was a big turning point in terms of starting to accept my Haida-ness,” says Davidson. “Up to that point, for many of us in my generation, in my parents’ generation, it was shameful to be Haida.”
Since then, Davidson has cultivated his “Haida-ness” while at the same time winning great acclaim as an artist. Avid collectors snap up his work, and museums and corporations frequently commission major pieces. During the 1980s, he created two works, a bronze sculpture and a set of three totem poles, for the PepsiCo International Sculpture Park near New York City. There, his work is displayed among that of Henry Moore and other 20th-century masters.
Amid that success, Davidson continues to explore the rituals that, in the past, were inextricably linked with Haida art. He has hosted several potlatches. Working with his grandmother, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, 97, and with other elders, he has learned 30 Haida songs and composed six new ones. In 1980, he helped form the Rainbow Creek Dancers to restore his people’s dance tradition. Its members include his wife and children, his brother Reg, and Haida actress Marianne Jones. “He reminds us that, as young as we are, we’re kind of elders-in-training,” says Jones, 36, who lives in Prince Rupert on British Columbia’s northwest coast. “It’s our responsibility to pass these things on.” Reg Davidson who still lives in Masset, marvels at how much energy his brother has for keeping the Haida tradition alive. Over the years, the artist has taken on a number of apprentices, including his son, who has just begun carving. “He gives a lot of his time to a lot of people,” says Reg, 38. “I don’t know how he handles it. Everybody wants a piece of the cake. I’m glad it’s him and not me.”
Yet Davidson balks at the notion that he is on a mission for I his community, or that he is £ the spirit of the Haida nation I incarnate. In fact, his lifestyle “ and tastes are fairly mainstream. His musical interests range from Mozart to Bob Dylan. He likes to jog and do yoga. He has a swimming pool in his backyard. The artist says that he has plunged into the culture for largely personal reasons—to heal the pain that he says is the legacy of every Haida person after 220 years of decline. And Davidson has been looking back, to the beginning of the end—to first contact with the white man. “When I read the missionaries’ accounts,” he says, “I can see why it became shameful to be Haida, because they really worked to downgrade what Haida was.” Robert Davidson has taken upon himself the weight of two centuries of conquest. And like the trickster Raven, he can almost make it seem light as a feather.
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