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Detail of a photo of Charles Edenshaw by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c. 1890.Canadian Museum of Civilization

Moving through the main floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery right now means confronting mastery and tragedy in the same breath.

The first career survey of the iconic Haida artist Charles Edenshaw is long overdue and comprehensive, with 240 works tracked down and borrowed from museums and collectors around the world. There are intricately carved argillite model poles and platters, wooden chests and canes, silver and gold bracelets; also painted, woven hats, created with his wife.

"To this day his craft and mastery of design and style are recognized as the epitome of Classical Haida art," writes Aldona Jonaitis with the University of Alaska Museum of the North, in the catalogue.

The VAG has now confirmed that the exhibition, which closes in Vancouver on Feb. 2, will travel to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (March 7-May 25) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection north of Toronto (June 27-Sept. 21).

The work is extraordinary; the story behind it even more so. Edenshaw survived a smallpox epidemic that came close to wiping out the Haida people. His art has helped ensure the survival of Haida culture – targeted by oppressive government policies. From these remarkable works there emerges an important Northwest Coast – and Canadian – history lesson.