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Art & Architecture Three history-making exhibitions of Indigenous art and culture open in B.C.

Haida mask of Kalga Jaad, made by skil kaat'las, Reg Davidson, on display at the new MOA exhibition Culture at the Centre.

derek stevens

Linnea Dick woke up on the first anniversary of her father’s death feeling sad and lost. Beau Dick was a Kwakwaka’wakw artist, and, later that day, Linnea would emerge from her official mourning period to walk a group of people through a collection of his magnificent work at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler. Here, in a show she had co-curated, she found comfort being surrounded by him, in a sense.

“In the Kwakwaka’wakw culture, we don’t have a word for art. This is living, breathing art,” said Linnea Dick, leading a tour through the exhibition for the first time.

Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit, the first retrospective of the artist’s work since his unexpected death on March 27, 2017, is one of three history-making exhibitions of Indigenous art and culture that have recently opened in British Columbia. At the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, a new historic show brings together work from six First Nations. And the Museum of Vancouver is displaying its large collection of Haida art in its entirety for the first time in the show Haida Now.

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While each show is distinct, there are also strong connections – with some common artists, organizers and themes – including resilience, and the relationship between story, culture and craft.

Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit

Dzunukwa Mask, 2007-2015. From the exhibition Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit at the Audain Art Museum.

It happened almost involuntarily, standing in front of Dick’s 1985 Moo Gums mask. I started talking to it. And it happened again and again, as I moved through Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit. These masks feel alive; they draw you in to a silent (or not) conversation, a staring contest, creating some kind of uncanny connection. You commune with them. Michael Audain, the B.C. philanthropist who built the museum, has talked about saying goodnight to the historic Northwest coast masks that hang in his home office. Linnea Dick says her father talked to the masks he made, too.

Benjamin Kerry Dick was born in Alert Bay, B.C., in 1955 and raised both in Northern B.C. and in Vancouver. He was a skilled and innovative artist, a hereditary chief, a passionate activist, gifted storyteller, kind mentor and a wise man. It was a shock when he died last year at the age of 61, following a heart attack, a series of strokes and other complicating health issues. His life is the subject of a recently released documentary, Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters.

His monsters are beautifully made, and haunting, as this exhibition demonstrates.

Raven Transformation Mask Closed. From the exhibition Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit at the Audain Art Museum.

Trevor Mills

Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit, co-curated by Linnea Dick and Audain Museum chief curator Darrin Martens, begins with a talking stick – a staff traditionally used for ceremonies and cultural events. Dick’s 1996 red-cedar talking stick sets the visitor off on a path through his life and work. The show unfolds in four sections: The first gallery is enormous and features a range of work, mostly masks, including the large and powerful Dzunukwa mask made in 2007 that usually hangs in the permanent collection galleries. Dick has made several versions of Dzunukwa, the Kwakwaka’wakw wild woman from the woods. In another version, this one from 2002, her eyes are replaced by mirrors, so when you approach her and look into her large circular eyes, you see yourself. Bah!

Madam mask, also in this gallery, has a big blocky tongue made of copper, set against the large white teeth of the red-cedar mask and long, dark horse hair. The copper tongue is whimsical and beautiful, and feels almost decadent. It is also symbolic: Copper, as Dick famously referenced not just in his art but in his activism, has huge cultural importance. And what could be more important than the words our tongues allows us to speak?

Raven Transformation Mask Open. From the exhibition Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit at the Audain Art Museum.

Trevor Mills

The second gallery is showing the works Dick made for the prestigious international art exhibition Documenta 14 in 2017, but did not live to see. The 18 pieces in Undersea Kingdom (2016-17), installed in a circle, were inspired by a Kwakwaka’wakw legend, and they are his final works. The final piece, Big Whale, has a small plastic action figure riding on its back – it’s Dick, a playful creation made by a few of Dick’s friends in his workshop; he helped embellish it as well.

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After a gallery focusing on Dick’s printmaking, the show ends with work by artists who inspired Dick, were mentored by him and/or collaborated with him. In here are pieces by Haida artists Robert Davidson and Bill Reid – including a rare Bear Mask made by Reid in 1964. The oldest work by Dick in the show – a purse Dick carved when he was likely about 19 – is also in this final room, as is a large installation, Four Skins, Dick created in 2016 with his partner, the artist Bernadette Phan, on deer hide (with acrylic). The final piece in the show, just around the corner from that talking stick that started the visitor on the path through Dick’s story, is a yellow-cedar totem pole, carved in 2002 in Haida style, loosely based on a pole carved by Haida artist Charles Edenshaw.

“For me, it’s kind of like a beginning,” Linnea Dick says. “In our traditional house, there’s totem poles that are right in the entry, and for me it kind of represents a full circle.”

Culture at the Centre

Welcome Figure, made by Norman Tait. From the exhibition Culture at the Centre.

In 2014, Dick and Haida activist and artist Guujaaw led a delegation to Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a ritual “shaming ceremony.” They broke a large copper shield named T’aaw in a public protest against the federal government’s treatment of the environment and Indigenous people in Canada. Dick had led a similar delegation to Victoria, home of the B.C. government, the previous year.

A piece of T’aaw is now installed at the Museum of Anthropology as part of the exhibition Culture at the Centre: Honouring Indigenous Culture, History and Language. The show is the first of its kind – a collaboration between six Indigenous communities showcasing five cultural centres and museums they run in their communities: the Musqueam Cultural Education and Resource Centre, Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre, the Nisga’a Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum and Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay.

It’s a relatively small show – there are only 23 pieces on display – but it is groundbreaking and ambitious in scope; and the fact that these six Nations and curators Jill Baird and Pam Brown pulled this off in only eight months is nothing short of extraordinary.

MOA is on Musqueam territory. Visitors are greeted by a recorded welcome message in Halkomelem, and the first artifact comes from Musqueam.

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Made by Reg Davidson, 2014. From the exhibition Culture at the Centre.

It’s a feat of skill, artistry and detective work: a 32-foot long sturgeon harpoon. A description of the mighty tool had been passed down in the oral history – but not how to build it. Working off historical drawings and from stories handed down by elders, Musqueam councillor Morgan Guerin recreated the technology used by his ancestors.

The person fishing holds the harpoon against the face, by the cheekbone, while the hand guides it underwater. The holder of the harpoon can detect movement, letting him know that there’s a sturgeon nearby.

“This, 110 years after not having been seen, not having been constructed, was put together. Although it was my hands, it was all of their words and their ancestors’ words who put together such a technical piece which still works,” Guerin says .

“Those are still alive, they’re sitting inside people, these teachings.”

From the Nisga’a Museum, where Martens (who in April announced his departure from the Audain Museum) used to be the museum director, a large button blanket tells a political story: It was presented to H.P. Bell-Irving when he was Lieutenant Governor of B.C. – a way for the Nisga’a to show their strength and determination to negotiate a treaty (which they did, of course). Also from Nisga’a, artist Norman Tait’s larger-than-life cedar welcome figure is holding an oolichan-grease spoon. From the Haida, contemporary artist Reg Davidson’s enormous red-cedar mask, made in 2010, is installed next to a petrified walrus skull discovered on Haida Gwaii in 2017 that is about 42,000 years old.

From the Heltsiuk, a 2009 mask by contemporary artist Ian Reid is installed next to a chair incorporating traditional themes, attributed to Chief Robert Bell, who lived from 1859 to 1904.

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The importance of the traditional, living culture in the work of Indigenous contemporary artists – and the life of Indigenous people – is a major theme throughout this show.

Haida Now

The Museum of Vancouver show, which has more than 450 works, is a testament to the rich Haida influence in the region – an estimated one-fifth of the Haida population lives in Greater Vancouver, according to the museum.

The Haida were decimated by smallpox – up to 99 per cent of the population was wiped out by the disease, which was introduced by the Yaatz Xaaydaga – the Iron People, the European colonizers. This fact is essential context for this exhibition, guest curated by Haida curator Kwiaahwah Jones in collaboration with MOV’s Viviane Gosselin and in partnership with the Haida Gwaii Museum’s director Nika Collison (who was also involved in the MOA show).

Shaman sculpture, Louis Collinson (1881-1970), Haida, Skidegate. Date unknown. Yellow cedar wood, paint. From the exhibition Haida Now at the Museum of Vancouver.

For two years, Haida artists and knowledge holders met with curators and conservators in the MOV vaults, helping to identify and document the large treasure of Haida works held by the MOV. In a similar process to the one undertaken by Guerin as he recreated the fishing spear, these “reunions,” as one conservator called them, helped unearth many stories about the items and how they were used.

In contrast with the show at MOA, the MOV exhibition is packed with work: blankets, baskets, masks, argillite and wood carvings, bentwood boxes, jewellery (including work by Bill Reid) and more. Sometimes the sheer volume can be somewhat overwhelming. For those moments, there’s a couch off in the corner where you can take a load off, and feel as if you are in a contemporary Haida home.

Beaver frontlet headpiece, Tsimshian. Date unknown. Maple wood, cloth, string, weasel fur, sea lion whiskers, sticks, abalone shell, metal, paint. From the exhibition Haida Now at the Museum of Vancouver.

Two of the most arresting items in the show are new. Both were created by Haida artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, who are brothers; their father is Guujaaw.

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Haida Eyes is a work in progress: It is a proposal for new vocabulary to describe the shapes in Haida art. The words currently used, such as ovoid and formline, were developed at a time when government policy had suppressed First Nations languages. The Edenshaws, in search of more culturally appropriate terms, have spent years discussing the issue with artists and linguistic experts – especially the late elder and Haida speaker Chini Stephen Brown. Through that process, they have come up with new words that emerge from Haida culture, not English words that come from outside of it. Here they present for the first time a series of drawings with text explanations to demonstrate their proposals.

Raven rattle, Tlingit, late 1800s, alder wood, paint. From the exhibition Haida Now at the Museum of Vancouver.

It is impossible to create a show like this and not address the critical question of repatriation. Many pieces reflect the work that Haida have done around repatriation – bringing their ancestors’ remains and their treasures home from museums around the world.

In 2009, a delegation of 21 Haida went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. They were enraptured by a Haida chest in the museum’s collection, spending a great deal of time standing around it, Jones says. In 2014, Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw travelled to the Oxford museum, where they spent 28 days studying the box so they could replicate it properly. “So we could take this knowledge home and this box home,” Jones says .

The brothers carved a magnificent piece that now sits prominently (along with a few other treasures) in the centre of the exhibition.

“To have this in our community means so much,” Jones says. “To have small kids grow up around this changes who you become.”

Questions arise around the complex issue of repatriation. How did so many of these works make it from Haida Gwaii to this museum down south on the mainland? And where do they belong now?

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Particularly haunting are three fragments of old house poles, sawn off to bring home as souvenirs from ancestral villages on Haida Gwaii, dating to the 1950s. (There are also two mortuary pieces in the collection, which the museum cannot show.) The fragments were kept in an anonymous private collection until the MOV bought them to prevent them from disappearing again – a decision curators made under duress; records show great discomfort around this decision, according to Jones. The source poles were identified from old photographs – curators could see exactly where the fragments had come from.

Owl sculpture, Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), Haida. Date unknown. Argillite, paint. From the exhibition Haida Now at the Museum of Vancouver.

After the exhibition, they may be going home. The curatorial team identified these pole fragments (along with many other items) for repatriation.

“Now we’re in this interesting place … to think about what is the right future,” Jones says. “Is the right future to stay here in the collection? Or is the right future to go back to the earth? Is the right future to go back to our people? There’s a lot of things, hard questions, that we need to talk about through this. But they’re such beautiful pieces; they ground this room. Because they really stand for the resilience of our people.”

Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit is at the Audain Art Museum until June 11; Culture at the Centre is at MOA until Oct. 8; Haida Now is at MOV until June 15, 2019.

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