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Haida master carver gets his due more than 90 years after his death

Photo of Charles Edenshaw by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c.1890.


The term "iconic" is arguably overused, but it most certainly applies to Charles Edenshaw. If anyone deserves the recognition that comes with a prominent show at a major Canadian art gallery, surely it is him.

A Haida chief and master carver, Mr. Edenshaw was a prolific artist who created exquisite works during a lifetime that coincided with a devastating smallpox epidemic that came close to wiping out his people. He survived and his work helped ensure that the artistic traditions and traditional narratives of his people did as well.

Even under the oppressive circumstances his generation faced, Mr. Edenshaw took classical Haida art to new heights, with works such as detailed argillite carvings, model poles, intricate silver and gold bracelets, and hats he created with his wife Isabella, a master weaver herself. Admired in his lifetime, the work has since been essential in the development of contemporary Northwest Coast art. Without Mr. Edenshaw, there could not have been Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, James Hart – descendants of Mr. Edenshaw not just in blood (Mr. Reid was his great-great nephew; Mr. Davidson is his great-grandson and Mr. Hart his great-great grandson), but in artistry.

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"When you work with Bill Reid's work, when you work with Jim [Hart] and Robert [Davidson], it always goes back to Edenshaw," says Daina Augaitis, associate director and chief curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery. "He was one of the most important threads that did manage to keep the Haida culture alive through that period."

The first career survey of Mr. Edenshaw's work opened this weekend at the Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Ms. Augaitis and Robin K. Wright, who has been studying Mr. Edenshaw since 1969 and is now director of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Both Mr. Hart and Mr. Davidson served as Haida advisers for this long overdue retrospective, which includes some 240 works, gathered from museums and collectors all over the world – and now back on B.C. soil.

"It really is a kind of homecoming," Ms. Augaitis says.

Charles Edenshaw – also known as Tahayghen – was born in 1839 in Skidegate, on Haida Gwaii. With the fur trade, it was a time of great wealth for the Haida, and the culture was flourishing. But this was to be shattered with the 1862 smallpox epidemic, which killed up to an estimated 90 per cent of the Haida population, and other effects of contact.

Mr. Edenshaw produced many works, and his art was purchased not just by souvenir-seeking tourists, but also collected by noted anthropologists such as Franz Boas and John Swanton, who recognized its high quality. The objects found their way into important museums around the world.

As you enter this exhibition much closer to home, you encounter an enormous photograph of Mr. Edenshaw posing with a number of works, including two argillite model poles and an argillite chest. The chest had been displayed at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle, after which its front panel was lost and the figure on the lid – a bear consuming a human – was separated. At the VAG, in a display case in front of the photo, the man-eating bear is reunited with its lid and chest – minus the front panel. Contemporary Haida artist Christian White, another Edenshaw descendant, has carved a panel to replace the missing piece, which will be added to the show. One of the argillite poles is installed here as well.

The curved lines of the walls and cases throughout the exhibition are an ode to the sinuous lines of Mr. Edenshaw's work. In one gallery, spectacular argillite platters use a rich visual language to recount traditional stories: the raven and the first men; the creation of the female sex organ; the mythical sea creature the Wasco.

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Ms. Augaitis stresses that the VAG is presenting Mr. Edenshaw's work as art, and not as ethnographic objects. Still, it seems impossible to not view the work through this lens; the historical context enriching the encounter rather than distracting from the mastery.

Consider the many silver and gold bracelets: When the Haida had to stop tattooing themselves – which had been a way to display their crest – it remained acceptable to wear jewellery to display the crest. So the Haida would have a dogfish or eagle on their wrist, instead of a tattoo on their skin. "It became a way that one could display their identity without annoying the missionaries and government agents," Ms. Wright says.

Mr. Edenshaw's model poles are also connected to the external pressure to abandon the traditional way of life. While the Haida could not hold a potlatch or raise a totem pole – too public – the small poles could be discreetly made. At the same time, these poles were being snatched up by visitors. So the Haida couldn't practise their cultural traditions, but they were encouraged to make beautiful things for others

"In a way Charles Edenshaw was preserving the culture that he could no longer practise in the full-blown, full-scale public way," Ms. Wright says. "He was imbuing these models with all of his traditional knowledge. And it's through the study of these old pieces that the contemporary artists are regaining their appreciation for what was really the traditional way."

Among the many treasures of this exhibition (which organizers hope will travel to the National Gallery of Canada next spring and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection next fall) are Mr. Edenshaw's 1902 Humanoid Mask – one of only two masks he is known to have created in his life (the other, deemed too fragile to travel to the exhibition, is represented with a photograph). Two settees from his own home – one, circa 1870 (with no legs, as was the Haida tradition) and the second made about 20 years later (with legs) – demonstrate the increasing influence of non-Haida design in his work. His canes feature both traditional Haida imagery such as an eagle, and figures from abroad, such as snakes (which are not native to Haida Gwaii) and even an elephant.

Two silver bracelets installed next to each other – one his, the other Bill Reid's – make explicit Mr. Edenshaw's influence on his contemporary artist descendants. Next to Mr. Reid's bracelet is his dogfish brooch, clearly influenced by Mr. Edenshaw's pencil drawing of the dogfish tattoo that graced Isabella's thigh.

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After encountering Mr. Edenshaw's bracelets for the first time, Mr. Reid has been quoted as saying "the world was not really the same after that." (The quotation varies slightly, depending on the source.) Mr. Reid inherited Mr. Edenshaw's tools and did the legacy proud – and through his own work and great success was himself influential in establishing Mr. Edenshaw's reputation.

Mr. Edenshaw, who died in 1920, didn't sign any of his work – at least as far as art historians are aware – so identifying it is an art in itself. In a 1967 VAG exhibition, Arts of the Raven, a room dedicated to Mr. Edenshaw featured 66 objects. Historians now know that almost a third of them weren't his. Some of these works are installed in this show, to demonstrate this attribution challenge. Since then, identifying features and styles in Mr. Edenshaw's work have been established, based on the handful of his works that were documented or commissioned, as well as photographs such as the one at the beginning of this exhibition, which clearly links the artist to the works in the photo.

Ms. Wright, who has done her fair share of detective work in the many years she has spent tracking his work – the last four in preparation for this exhibition – says to see them together now in Vancouver is extraordinary.

"They're old friends, because I've been looking at pictures of them," she says. "But to see them in their three-dimensional real-life is just thrilling."

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