Famed for his Haida manga, artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas reframes the Museum of Anthropology’s view of First Nations.
The man who invented Haida manga is standing in an improvised studio at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is positioned between his sculptural works in progress–two large, copper-coated "shields", which he will install outside MOA's front doors–talking about meeting places, middle places, and margins. "I'm trying to play the edge between the neighbourhoods," he says, indicating the way the interface between First Nations and colonial culture has shaped his current project–and his life. "I grew up that way. I was the only pale-looking Haida in the whole village...the only green-eyed, light-haired kid." Born in Prince Rupert and raised in Del katla, on Haida Gwaii (he added the Haida name of his mother's family to his Anglo surname), he has witnessed and experienced social inequities based solely on appearance. "I'm always very conscious of the edge," he says.
His dual careers reflect that consciousness. After briefly studying art in Vancouver in the mid-1970s, Yahgulanaas returned to Haida Gwaii to assist acclaimed painter, carver, and printmaker Robert Davidson on a significant totem-pole commission. While occasionally participating in other such projects, he spent much of the 1980s and '90s dedicated to public service and political activism. For a period, he was an elected chief councillor for the Haida, and he also sat on numerous committees, negotiating jurisdictional disputes between the Haida and various levels of government. "I was working with other people in the community on issues related to the land, social justice, offshore oil, and gas transport, these sorts of things," he says. By 2000, however, he felt he could return full-time to his art-making. "What's really good about it is that the art is informed by that experience," he says. "The exploration of the edge."
Yahgulanaas began creating pop-graphic narratives, riffing on traditional Haida stories and painting techniques, and quickly developed the distinctive art form for which he is most widely known. "I started off trying to do comic books because comic books are about accessibility," he says. Karen Duffek, MOA's curator of contemporary visual arts, adds, "Michael brings together his own version of the language and imagery of Haida painting with the mass-circulation and graphic aspects of Japanese manga." A tricksterlike sense of humour contributes to his work's appeal, Duffek observes. Yahgulanaas's books include A Tale of Two Shamans , The Last Voyage of the Black Ship , and Hachidori , a bestseller in Japan.
For the past few months, the artist has been expanding his creative repertoire. By invitation, he's been making mixed-media sculptural installations, working out of a basement room at MOA. The building is in the middle of an immense expansion and renovation, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2009. Duffek describes aspects of MOA's renewal project and its ambitions to "reconceptualize" significant aspects of the museum, and to involve First Nations communities in the process. "It seems the perfect time to invite a contemporary artist like Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas into the institution to mix things up," she says, "to challenge prevailing ways of framing Northwest Coast peoples and art."
Collectively titled Meddling in the Museum and opening to the public on July 10, Yahgulanaas's three installations incorporate objects and architectural references within and around MOA and examine the relationship between the institution and the indigenous cultures whose works reside there. One of his projects, Bone Box , employs 12 discarded archaeological trays, once used at MOA for storing cultural fragments, as the ground for a Haida manga mural. The whole is to be installed in the great hall and louvred to enable viewers to look past Yahgulanaas's imagery into a stand of 19th-century Haida poles–and beyond, to the land and sea visible through MOA's immense glass wall.
The artist says he is interested in the ways cultures–both colonizing and colonized–are defined by collections. This is also an aspect of Pedal to the Meddle , which mounts Bill Reid's 1985 canoe upside down on the roof of a Pontiac Firefly, which has been covered in a mixture of black paint and argillite dust. The car and its cargo appear to be racing out of the museum's Bill Reid Rotunda, challenging the way institutions construct iconic status. "I'm just asking people to think about what it is," Yahgulanaas says. "Bill, like Haida, has become part of the cultural currency."
As for the two big shields, built out of recycled car hoods and covered with gleaming copper leaf, they will hang next to cast-concrete dedications by the federal and provincial governments that have been on the museum's exterior pillars since its opening in 1976–dedications Yahgulanaas sees as "land-claim statements" in need of redress. Collectively titled Coppers from the Hood , the two works incorporate references to the legacies of colonialism (scribbled on the underside of one of the hoods is an old police note: "Stolen but recovered") and to historic "coppers". Symbolic objects of wealth and social status, coppers were once collected and exchanged by indigenous peoples of the northern and central Northwest Coast. One sculpture, composed of welded elements from Plymouth and Pontiac hoods, strikes other significant historical chords: the original Pontiac, for example, was an 18th-century leader of the Ottawa people, famous for opposing the British occupation of the Great Lakes region. The other shield, painted in Haida-manga style, alludes to the story of the Two Sisters, in which a historic peace accord was struck between the Haida and the Salish.
Yahgulanaas says he's not interested in passing judgment about past wrongs, but in bringing them into the light. "If we can define the problem, we can get it out of the way," he says simply. "The solution will present itself."