Carrying on “Irregardless” will induce chuckles

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At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until March 17, 2013

You may not guffaw as you walk through Carrying on “Irregardless”, but you will certainly smile, sometimes chuckle, and occasionally chortle. This exhibition of humour in contemporary Northwest Coast aboriginal art, on at the Bill Reid Gallery, is filled with clever parodies, visual puns, and a surfeit of mockery and irreverence. The show’s ungrammatical title is itself humorous: it’s a phrase that Reid knowingly used, apparently with a twinkle in his eye, as if daring sticklers to say, “Irregardless is not a real word!”

Although the focus is on contemporary pieces by 28 distinguished artists, the show opens with a few examples of older—sometimes much older—work. A prehistoric stone bowl is incised with a broadly smiling human face, although what the joke is we’re not told. With its knit eyebrows and quivering mouth, a 19th-century “ridicule mask” by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw artist demonstrates a long history of (sometimes punitive) humour in Northwest Coast ceremonials. And a small totem pole, carved by Ellen Neel in about 1953, depicts a whale and a raven laughably surmounted by a White Spot cartoon chicken. The chicken’s wings are absurdly elongated and outspread, and its squat yellow feet are perched on the face of the creature that should be at the top of the pole—the Thunderbird.

“Traditional” and “nontraditional” masks by Beau Dick, Reg Davidson, Moy Sutherland, Norman Tait, Shawn Hunt, and Tony Hunt Jr., project a range of expressions, from foolish to subversive. Drawings, prints, and paintings by Art Wilson, Lyle Wilson, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Don Yeomans, and Gwaai Edenshaw merge Northwest Coast graphic conventions with popular-culture and art-historical forms to convey political, social, and environmental commentary.

Popular culture is also politicized in three-dimensional form, as in Sonny Assu’s sardonic series of breakfast cereal boxes, which include Bannock Pops and Treaty Flakes, and Tania Willard’s deadpan fast-food containers, Make That Two Combos, Please, created out of birch bark, cedar root, and pine needles. (If you’re counting, yes, male artists far outnumber female artists in this show. That’s not funny.)

Photography and video are also used to great effect here. Particularly amusing is the video of Skeena Reece’s 2008 performance Dissing Emily Carr, in which the contemporary Tsimshian-Gitksan artist sends up the historic Euro-Canadian artist for cultural appropriation. Coiffed and costumed as Carr at her fattest and frumpiest, Reece badly and blatantly copies a 1979 print by the acclaimed Tahltan-Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob. At one point Bob joins Reece on-stage, and the broad humour shifts into almost transcendent respect.

Nicholas Galanin’s bilaterally montaged photograph Things Are Looking Native, Natives Are Looking Whiter raises a number of issues around appearance, artifice, and cultural merging. Galanin’s work is a composite portrait whose left half is taken from a 1906 Edward Curtis photo of a young Hopi-Tewa woman, adorned with the distinctive “squash blossom” hairstyle that indicates her marriageable status. The right half is a 1970s studio shot of Carrie Fisher as Star Wars’ Princess Leia, coiffed in her famous “cinnamon buns”. The similarity between the two hairstyles is amplified by how alike these two individuals look—same mouth, chin, and face shape—and speaks generally to a kind of globalized merging of cultures and more particularly to the ways non-Native notions of difference and exoticism reveal themselves through mainstream costume and display. That Curtis has been accused of staging his “ethnographic” photos adds to the complexity.

What this work and the entire show reveal is the way humour can function as a powerful antidote to colonialism.

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