ART

Haidas on the Seine

The City of Light toasts artist Bill Reid

NICHOLAS JENNINGS October 16 1989
ART

Haidas on the Seine

The City of Light toasts artist Bill Reid

NICHOLAS JENNINGS October 16 1989

Haidas on the Seine

ART

The City of Light toasts artist Bill Reid

The first North American Indians set foot in France nearly 500 years ago, brought back as curiosities by French explorers. North America's

natives have continued to hold a fascination for the French, and the arrival in Paris last week of 20 Haidas from British Columbia stirred up enormous excitement—even after a summer of extravagant celebrations for the French Revolution’s bicentennial. Certainly, the Haidas’ arrival, by canoe, was designed to attract attention. For four days, they had paddled the 150 km up the Seine River from Rouen in a 48foot cedar canoe called a lootaas, or “waveeater.” Clad in deerskins and war paint, they landed at a dock on the Seine below Paris city hall, where they chanted tribal songs and beat war drums.

Now, the lootaas becomes one of the major attractions in a six-month exhibition, opening this week at the city’s Museum of Man, to honor French anthropologist Claude LéviStrauss as he turns 80. Lévi-Strauss, who greeted the paddlers by putting on a traditional red-and-black Haida cape, used the occasion to praise Haida artist Bill Reid, 69, who made the canoe. Jewelry, prints and sculptures by Reid will also be featured in the exhibition, which includes the works of other indigenous artists from around the world. “His work is the rediscovery of a technique that is very sophisticat-

ed,” said Lévi-Strauss in an interview. “It is at the same time handicraft and art. And great art has always been half handicraft.”

The inclusion of 16 of his works at the Museum of Man—the first time ever for a living artist—represents major recognition for Reid. Credited with bringing about a renaissance of traditional Haida carving and silver-

work, Reid has already been

celebrated at home in Vancouver, where his magnificent six-foot cedar carving,

The Raven and the First Men, is the centrepiece of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and where his bronze sculpture of a killer whale, called The Chief of the Undersea World, sits at the entrance to the city’s aquarium.

Other works by Reid are in the new Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que. But the Paris exhibit is part of a growing international recognition of the Haida artist. One of his latest undertakings, a bronze sculpture titled Spirit of Haida-Gwaii, was recently commissioned for perma-

nent display at the new Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The rendering of a canoe—which cost $1.8 million to make and is filled with mythical Haida figures—will be unveiled next fall. And Washington’s Smithsonian Institution has scheduled a major retrospective of Reid’s work in its Museum of Natural History next year.

But after last week’s voyage on the Seine, Reid was unwilling to discuss his achievements. Before the trip, he had said that it was his fantasy to see the canoe he had crafted pass under the 17th-century Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. But many of the paddlers were inexperienced, which slowed progress. And Reid, who suffers from Parkinson's dis-

ease, spent the trip on a barge that followed the canoe. The crew had also been disappointed to discover that 12 specially carved paddles designed by Reid had been lost in transit from Vancouver. A French canoeing team came to the rescue with modem paddles for the voyage. Reid said that there were some “marvellous moments” passing through rolling, green countryside and white chateau-topped cliffs near the village of Bonnières, 80 km from Paris. But on the whole, he added, the journey was extremely exhausting.

In an interview in his Paris hotel, while the six-foot, three-inch Reid sketched a design for a mural to be mounted at the Museum of Man exhibit, he became impatient when asked if he felt proud about taking part in the exhibit. “What is being proud?” he replied curtly. “These are words invented for novels. I am very tired and I pack my illness around with me. If you’re looking at the sunrise behind the pyramids and you have a nail in your shoe, what you feel mostly is the nail in your shoe.”

However tired and bad-

temPered the triP had left him, Reid brightened up considerably on the subject of the bronze canoe that he has created for the Washington Embassy. The sculpture, which features such mythological Haida figures as the trickster Raven and the mighty Wolf jostling with humans in a desperate effort to paddle forward, has been three years in the making. According to Reid, the work deals with the struggle of humanity and the environment. Declared Reid: “The working title was Sunday Afternoon on a Lost Lagoon. I imagined it as taking the kids for a ride in the family station wagon, and they are behaving in the usual

manner of kids—chewing each other up and scratching and hollering. That was the original concept.” But, he added, “You can’t have that kind of thing going on in public buildings, so the title now is Spirit of Haida-Gwaii.”

An active environmentalist himself, Reid has spent much of the 1980s fighting to save forested areas in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. He was among those arrested in 1984 during protests to prevent the logging of Lyell Island. And he has auctioned his works to raise funds for the campaign to save the trees on South Moresby Island from a similar fate. The Haida consider their Queen Charlotte homeland a sovereign nation, called Haida-Gwaii. Indeed, on the first day of the trip up the Seine, the crew on the two barges travelling with the canoe refused to fly two Canadian flags supplied by the Canadian Embassy. And when the convoy arrived in Paris, they were flying the Haida flag instead.

It was on the Queen Charlottes, at his mother’s home town of Skidegate, that Reid first encountered his ancestral Haida culture. He was born in Victoria to a Scottish-German hotel manager and his Haida wife, but did not encounter his mother’s culture until he ^ was a young adult. When | he was 23, Reid—then a Ï broadcaster working for a | small Vancouver radio § station—spent a week g watching his Haida grando father, Charles Gladu stone, making a carving.

Although he did not -

speak Haida and his grandfather spoke no English, it was an experience that stayed with Reid, eventually contributing to his development as an artist. He continued to work as a broadcaster, but in his spare time he studied Haida art. After a radio career that included a 10-year period with the CBC as a news announcer in Toronto—when he studied jewelry-making at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute—he returned to Vancouver in 1951. A few years later, he began to devote himself full time to keeping the tradition of Haida jewelry alive.

By 1957, he had become an established authority on native design. Besides producing a wealth of jewelry, he pioneered the development of silk-screen art among West Coast Indians and, at the request of UBC, helped to carve a series of Haida totem poles. Another major commission, for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, yielded a large Haidastyle casket with an eagle on top. And, in 1973, retired Vancouver industrialist Walter Koemer commissioned him to produce his Raven and the First Men, which remains one of

his most impressive works. The huge carving depicts the Raven figure prying open a large clam from which the first people emerge.

With such striking creations, Reid began to achieve recognition—and honors. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from UBC in 1976, won the $20,000 Molson Prize for his contribution to the arts in 1977 and received the diploma of honor from the Canadian Conference on the Arts in 1979. Then, Reid watched as his works began to rapidly escalate in value. In 1981, a human-hawk brooch sold for more than $19,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City. And last year, a thunderbird bracelet fetched $80,000 in a private Canadian sale. Made of gold with abalone inset, it is now

on display in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Now living in a waterfront home on Vancouver’s exclusive Point Grey Road with his third wife, French-born anthropologist Martine, 47, Reid continues to work steadily despite his illness. He has a workshop on fashionable Granville Island, where young Haida artists go for advice and criticism. Last week, after festivities that included a formal greeting from the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, Reid seemed surprisingly detached from all the excitement. “The whole process of emotion carries you along as a spectator,” said Reid. “I enjoy observing my antics. But the cause of all these things,” he added, referring to the exhibit and his increased recognition, “has got nothing much to do with me.” And then, in an apparent reference to the handsome, 48-foot cedar canoe that he carved for Expo 86 in Vancouver, Reid said simply, “Joy is a well-made object.”

NICHOLAS JENNINGS

BRIGID JANSSEN