The happy rebirth of an intricate art

Thomas Hopkins April 14 1980

The happy rebirth of an intricate art

Thomas Hopkins April 14 1980

The happy rebirth of an intricate art


Thomas Hopkins

The huge golden beak curves down over the saucer of a clamshell. Frozen along the edges of the shell and wedged inside it are the carved buttocks and blank faces of small humans coaxed from the comfort of their clam birthplace by the unctious wheedling of Raven: The Trickster. The monumental sculpture, chipped from a single 4 V2-ton block of laminated yellow cedar, symbolizes the creation myth of a diminished race, the Haida Indians of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. Its designer is Bill Reid, 60, Haida

carver. For many, Raven and the First Men, unveiled by Prince Charles last week at the University of British Columbia’s stunning Museum of Anthropology, represents the linchpin in what has become a remarkable renaissance of Northwest Coast Indian art.

Twenty-five years ago the dense, intricate art of B.C.’s Indians was calcified and forgotten, wooden totems growing moss on the coasts of the Queen Charlotte Islands, carved artifacts of past lives carefully numbered and resting in museums. Today, in a stylish and happy rebirth , there are more than 200 carvers and printmakers thriving in the province, with some 50 building on the best of the strict

conventions and formalism of the old styles. Apprenticeship programs have blossomed all along the B.C. coast, and government and private commissions allow the most popular of the new carvers to earn up to $80,000 a year. Prints, such as Reflections by gifted young Haida carver Robert Davidson (see box), which sold for $250 in 1977, now sell for nearly $3,000, and West Coast artist Joe David’s Memorial Rainbow Drum fetches $600, up from $150 two years ago. Banners designed by Northwest Coast artists flutter over Vancouver streets and a dozen or so galleries that specialize in the art have

opened in recent years. In August, a show called Legacy: Continuing Traditions of Canadian Northwest Coast Indian Art will tour Britain, sponsored by the B.C. Provincial Museum. And the bulk of it will be the work of contemporary artists—not artifacts—unthinkable even a decade ago.

Like any renaissance, however, this one has not come about without dislocation and dispute; the exercise has not been just a resurrection of a forgotten art form but of the history of a people— a history totally entangled with the art. Supporters wrangle over whether the striking new works are simply traditional crafts that breathe pride into the

nostrils of a dead race or art in the “fine arts” sense. Young carvers try to balance the contradictions of art and growing commercialism against the clear imperative to tell old legends to generations who have never known them. For Bill Reid even the arguments are a sweet and unexpected development: “I got into this to do a little flagwaving, to say that the people who lived here were not insignificant.”

The fact that in B.C. (if not yet in the rest of Canada) the message has registered is due in no small measure to Reid, a part-Haida former CBC announcer who used to carve the ancient forms on bits of precious metal between radio cues. After years as a “radio gypsy,”

Reid decided to chuck it all in 1959 to begin work on two Northwest Coast ceremonial houses and six totem poles commissioned by UBC. From there he went on despite the increasing debilitation of Parkinson’s disease to study the old forms, adapting them to printmaking in the early ’70s. In 1978 he triumphantly raised a pole to the applause of 1,500 people gathered at his mother’s village of Skidegate on the rainand moss-painted Queen Charlotte Islands, the traditional Haida homeland.

It was of a scale and precision that have made Reid famous, but it also served to symbolize the unresolved tensions haunting both Reid and the re-

born art. Speaking of it he will call himself a “monument builder” in one sentence, a maker of “arti-fakes” in the next. These kinds of contradictions may have contributed to the fact that the Raven dogged his life for seven years before he could finish it. Though he began in 1973, with a design taken from a boxwood carving he had made in 1970, the rotunda that now houses the sculpture sat empty for years as illness and other commitments kept Reid away from the carving. It was only the patronage and persistence of B.C. philanthropist and lumberman Walter Koerner that pushed it through. Shaped by five different carver apprentices and finished by Reid, it will sit in a bowl of sand from Rose Spit, which curves from the north tip of the Queen Charlottes, the spot where the legend was supposed to have taken place.

Despite the mythic force of the piece (and Haida plans to consecrate it in a ceremony on June 5), Raven has been criticized because it doesn’t conform strictly enough to the old styles of Northwest Coast work. The line between art and artifact is a contentious one and for many anthropologists the new art is anathema. “For those people,” says the anthropology museum’s curator of ethnology, Marjorie Halpin, “anthropologically speaking, the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Certainly the old conventions are rigid. The art is rooted in Indian myth. The primary fig-

ures recur constantly: Eagle, Beaver, Killer Whale, Dogfish, Raven. The designs show tableaux of bears becoming men devouring frogs who become hawks—all kin to man and capable of transforming one to another. The artist is a shaman, a trickster like Raven, the performer of magic. The building blocks or “alphabet” of the art are shapes such as the squared-off oval (dubbed “ovoid”), elongated “u’s,” stylized eyebrows and wings, stitched together with thick, black, inter-connected “form lines.” The result is what Reid calls “suppressed power.”

Part of the confusion over what is acceptable in the new Northwest Coast art is that the old art was practical as well as mythic and symbolic—designs were found on rattles, masks, ceremonial boxes and cooking utensils. And artists held high social station - a sharp contrast to the painting-based Eastern Woodlands school of Indian artists like Norval Morrisseau, which emerged less than 20 years ago and had no heritage of craft making. Originally the best of the Northwest Coast craftsmen’s work served a function in the community. Much of it was used in potlatches, giftgiving ceremonies as intricate and stylized as a Japanese Noh play and reckless in their generosity. Chief’s garb rivalled the elegance of a Chinese emperor and even spoons and lowly grease bowls were intricately carved with glaring birds and fish. “They were,” says

Reid, “communities of connoisseurs.” They also were—with no loss of status-makers of trade goods. Indeed, after Captain George Dixon first exchanged goods with the Haida on the Charlottes in 1787 the production volume of exquisitely wrought artifacts increased. The vast bulk now in public hands was created between 1850 and 1910, much of it for white men. Trade led to innovation. New materials, such as the soft black slate called argillite, were whittled and useless silver coins hammered into intricately carved bracelets. But the white man also brought smallpox, called Tom Dyer by the Indians after the sailor who allegedly spread it. Worst hit were the

Haida. In 1835 they numbered some 6,000 in villages strung around the Charlottes; by 1915 there were 588. Yet another death blow was dealt by the white man —in 1884 the federal government enacted a missionary-inspired ban on potlatching that remained in effect until 1951. The young of the seven groups that make up the West Coast Indians, with the exception of the Kwakiutl (Kwa-gulth) who potlatched secretly, grew up ignorant of the old ways.*

By the early 20th century the art was finished. And its remnants lay unno-

*The other West Coast groups are Tlingit, Tsimshian (Sim-Shin), Coast Salish, West Coast (Nootka) and Bella Coola.

ticed until the 1940s when Max Ernst, André Breton and other European surrealist artists-in-exile in New York and friends such as . anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss were attracted by its visual puns and playfulness. They began buying it and prompted the art’s first gallery show in New York in 1946. By the ’50s UBC had commissioned Kwakiutl carver Mungo Martin to create poles at the campus and by 1959 Reid had quit the CBC to devote his time to researching amidst the 115,000 or so pieces of art in public hands. With the 1968 opening of The School of Indian Art at ’Ksan in North Central B.C. and the introduction of printmaking in the early ’70s, native art began to

flourish with the slow relearning of the old potlatch forms and skilful marketing to meet expanding consumer demands. Says Peter Macnair, curator of ethnology at Victoria’s Provincial Museum, “It remains a living art.”

But the fact that it is alive in so forceful and commercial a way, through the vehicle of relatively cheap limited edition prints, has brought its own pressures. Reid’s popularity and the accessible classicism of the Haida style has led to a “Haida is good, good is Haida” attitude among buyers who tend to pass over the more flamboyant and theatrical designs of the Kwakiutl, much to the irritation of that style’s champions. Printmaking has also led to the flourishing of quickly done “airport art” aimed at cash-rich Japanese tourists. “Seventy-five per cent of the artists working today don’t understand the basic forms,” worries 37-year-old Kwakiutl carver Tony Hunt. With scholarly criticism just beginning, it is taking time for fine art galleries to confidently show and categorize the best of the new work. For good young carvers and printmakers such as Art Thompson, Gerry Marks and Roy Vickers, acceptance for their work is slow to come. “It’s time to get people out to support these artists,” says Marjorie Halpin. “There’s been guilt in the past about white people even owning this work. Now I’m trying to turn people into patrons.” Aggravating the problem is the continuing distinction between the new art and its anthropological basis, a gap between tradition and art most keenly felt by the artists themselves. “I could easily make a good living just as an artist,” says Tony Hunt, who comes from a family of 22 carvers, runs a Victoria art gallery and a training program for young native students. “But my role is to teach at any cost.”

For his part Bill Reid worries about cluttering up the art by using it to “reinvent Indians.” Suffering the curse of a pioneer who had to work alone for many years, he is less convinced by the style’s cultural imperatives and says: “Sometimes I think we should be learning to fix cars and toasters, not doing art.” But even Reid chose to create the Skidegate pole for only his expenses, and he admits that he wants his ashes scattered over Tanu, his mother’s abandoned ancestral Queen Charlotte Island village. Tony Hunt and Robert Davidson, both extremely successful, feel compelled to teach and are at varying stages of building big houses in their culturally barren home villages. But, ironically, the most ordinary strength of the Northwest Coast art renaissance may be its most lasting. Says Marjorie Halpin, “You can do this for the rest of your life, make a living and still be an Indian.”