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Artist Robert Davidson works on a painting at his studio on the Semiahmoo Reserve in White Rock, B.C. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Artist Robert Davidson works on a painting at his studio on the Semiahmoo Reserve in White Rock, B.C. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Standing tall: Robert Davidson at the centre of a rebirth in Northwest Coast art Add to ...

In 1969, when Robert Davidson was 22, he seized on a life-defining cultural and artistic mission: He would carve and raise a totem pole in his hometown of Masset, B.C. The remote fishing village, perched on the north coast of Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands), had once been the site of an impressive collection of totem poles and longhouses, the work of its Haida residents, who had lived in the region for centuries. When the young artist carved his giant work, which he called Bear Mother, there had not been a pole-raising ceremony in Masset in nearly a century, and not a single totem pole remained in the village. Davidson, great-grandson of legendary Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw, was not just making a massive work of art. He was making a massive statement about his determination to bring the Haida culture back home.

Looking back, Davidson recalls how, when they were moving the 12-metre totem pole to a site next to a church, his grandfather poked him in the back with his cane. “Hey Robert,” he said, “that pole doesn’t belong to you any more; it belongs to them” – to the Haida community. Explains Davidson, “None of the people in Masset had witnessed a pole raising, so that was an amazing moment. And the minute the pole stood up, the people started to dance and sing.” Davidson, as is the tradition, danced around the pole himself, carrying the tools he used to carve it.

Now, the artist is at the centre of another big moment in Haida culture – this time far from the lush remoteness of Masset.

At the Seattle Art Museum, a wide-ranging exhibition titled Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse – which will later travel to a Smithsonian museum in New York – focuses on Davidson’s contemporary work, mostly paintings, and marks the first major American solo show for the artist. And just up the coast from there, Davidson has acted as one of the Haida advisers on the first retrospective of Edenshaw’s career, featuring some 240 works, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Together, the two shows mark an important, and long overdue, moment in the renaissance of Northwest Coast native culture. “There is,” says Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at SAM and the co-curator of the Davidson show, “this blossoming awareness of Haida art.”

In a strong statement by SAM, Davidson’s large acrylic canvases, bold in colour and execution, have taken up residence in the prime real estate of the Modern and Contemporary Galleries at the heart of the 81-year-old institution in downtown Seattle, rather than in the Native and Ancient Americas Galleries down the hall. “I’m tickled pink about that,” said Davidson during an interview from his studio in White Rock, south of Vancouver. “I feel so often we’re put into the category of aboriginal art, but I feel the classical art form can stand side by side with all of the other art forms in the world.”

From the moment you walk off the escalator, it’s hard not to be wowed. The first work visitors encounter is the striking Bird in the Air, from 2012, which has the refinements of classical Haida art but uses primary colours – including marigold yellow and ultramarine. As such, it boldly diverges from the red, black and white palette of Haida graphic art (though Davidson notes that yellow features prominently in the eye sockets on a Haida totem pole at the entrance to the Field Museum in Chicago and that both yellow and blue are used in Haida blankets). Davidson had seen a depiction of this supernatural avian being on an Edenshaw totem pole, and brings a contemporary interpretation with this abstraction.

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