On the day before Bernice A. King, daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the keynote speech to thousands of residential school survivors and their supporters at the Walk for Reconciliation event in Vancouver, British Columbia, a smaller, but no less enthusiastic audience gathers at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the opening of the Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World exhibition in Victoria, British Columbia.
Both events are landmarks unto themselves, yet lending strength to the glacial slow shift in western consciousness and validation of indigenous realities. Co-curated by two of the featured artists, Coast Salish lessLIE Sam and Kwakwakwak Rande Cook, the exhibition is a visual truth-telling of the dual cultural existence of a “modern-day, self-proclaimed” native artist and the clumsy but more oftentime clever ways in which their art helps them navigate both traditional responsibility and contemporary tradition. The results are beautiful, thoughtful, touching and funny.
Firstly, one must acknowledge the territory. And by that, I mean the stolen, renamed, illegally occupied land on which a western culture has sprung from. So it was important to have Songhees band council member John Rice state, before anything else, that we were all gathered on traditional Lekwungen land of his people in his opening address. The exhibition itself was divided into territories. One room hosting the inspired works of lessLIE Sam and Dylan Thomas, both Coast Salish artists and a second room dedicated to the modern works of two Kwakwakwak artists, Rande Cook and Fran Dick, all 4 artists representing two of the three island nations with the omission of the Nuu-cha-nulth nation. So why this exhibition and why now?
It seems the recent activism sparked across the nation, touching indigenous peoples globally under the moniker Idle No More, has also awakened the native artist. The collection of works could be viewed as a challenging poke on the shoulder to their traditions as if to say “I have served you, now what are you willing to do for me?” These artists have only each other as support and guides through this unchartered territory. As lessLIE quotes Lawrence Paul Yuxwelupten, another Coast Salish artist in his exhibition statement: “Traditional Northwest Coast art within a commercial gallery context is a cultural dead-end since such art only serves as trophies of colonizers and their decendents and it does not serve the culture it is intended for.” Dylan Thomas makes a point about dualities within the profession in his statement, “When one makes a living selling art, it can be easy to become more focused on the business aspect of the art than on the creative, spiritual aspect.” And to that point, not a price tag or red dot was in sight throughout the gallery.
Both Rande Cook and Fran Dick were raised with the traditions of their culture and that includes the artistic practices as wood carvers and painters. Fran Dick contributed portrait paintings of people in her life. Her subjects were both in traditional regalia and street clothes; all were captured with a caring brush meant to honour the people. Fran breaks away from the limiting traditional pallet of red and black and white to immortalize family members in tones reflective of graphic novel greys with bold accents used discriminatingly. Each portrait was accompanied by text explaining whom her subject is and why she chose to paint them. She also added audio suited to each painting. For example; the portrait of her younger brother Jesse, who in 1985 took his life at the age of 20, is accompanied by an excerpt of an audio interview Fran conducted with him. We hear Jesse speak admiringly of his Grandmother who told him, “Nothing but good should come from inside.” Heartbreaking and very meaningful. This artist has challenged herself by bringing her soulful memories to canvas and sharing a brave artist act to the exhibition.
When I spoke to Rande Cook about what he felt was an important key message within the exhibition he commented on the transformative elements of all the work. He notes that western culture has lost their spirituality and are now trying to find it through consumerism. “You can’t find spirituality in Nike running shoes or Starbucks coffee,” he explains. “Starbucks built their business on Coast Salish land (Seattle) and they don’t care.” Which answered my question about corporate branding within the show, the Starbucks logo being ingested and regurgitated at least twice. It’s as if the artists are making a parody of everything and throwing it back in the faces of the audience and saying, “So what are you going to do about it?”
The audience members I spoke to were taken by the “Vatican” pieces by Rande Cook. In this instance, the artist becomes the art. Rande dawns a northwest coast portrait mask he carved and photos are taken of him in hot tourist spots such as New York City’s Times Square and the Financial District where the recent “Occupy” movement was birthed. Rande quotes the time he and an artist colleague, Luke Marsden, were taking a jewelry course in Tuscany, Italy, when they took a side trip to Rome, placed the carved masks on their faces to have their pictures taken inside the Vatican as “the most craziest, important feeling of my career yet.” He took fear inside him related to religious power and flipped it in that moment. This is another great example of the artist challenging, not only his cultural traditions, but his personal political loyalties.
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