At the Museum of Vancouver until June 15, 2019
Haida Now at the Museum of Vancouver is a stellar exhibition. Like Culture at the Centre at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, it seeks to rewrite the relationship between First Nations and the colonialist institutions that have, for so long, collected, housed, and displayed their belongings. Two years ago, the MOV’s Viviane Gosselin invited guest curator Kwiaahwah Jones to unpack—literally and metaphorically—more than 450 Haida belongings from its vaults. In turn, Jones invited a number of her fellow Haida, including artists, performers, and knowledge holders, to go through the collection with her and to share their insights and understanding. The MOV also worked with Nika Collison, director and curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay, who has contributed some text panels to the show, illuminating ideas of respect, repatriation, and intellectual-property rights.
As has become exemplary in contemporary museum practice, the MOV show employs not only text but also photographs, maps, a soundscape, videos, and interactive technologies to engage viewers in an experience of cross-cultural learning. These communication aids are built around a rich and visually engrossing array of woven spruce-root baskets and hats, painted bentwood boxes, engraved silver bracelets, inlaid frontlets, Raven rattles, silkscreen prints, and carvings in wood and argillite.
In the first gallery, visitors encounter evidence of the Haida people’s seafaring skills and their trading (and raiding) journeys by canoe, up and down the North Pacific coast. Their voyages also took them to the Coast Salish territory on which Vancouver now stands. Displays here include ingenious cargo containers woven out of spruce root and designed to fold flat for storage, miniature canoes, war clubs, a paddle, and an account of a peace treaty forged in the distant past between the warring Haida and Squamish. Also on view here is a time line that runs from 42,000 years ago to the present and that shifts colour between the late 18th and early 20th centuries to indicate the dark and painful period during which Haida people and culture were decimated by colonialism and disease. Underlying the historic works is a powerful sense of contemporary resilience and resurgence.
Social organization and oral histories are articulated in the show’s next section, which includes old wooden figures of a shaman, a chief, and a high-ranking woman (her status indicated by the labret in her lower lip) created by Louis Collison; three argillite carvings of the Bear Mother story, including one by the legendary Charles Edenshaw; and a contemporary silver bracelet made by Jesse Brillon. The imagery in this powerfully compressed work conjoins Brillon’s real-life story of surviving a shipwreck with accounts of the supernatural Sea-Wolf, Wasco.
Among the most impressive works here are the finely woven spruce-root baskets, their intricate pattern work symbolic of natural forms and elements and indicative of weeks and months of labour. Also on display is an array of tightly woven spruce-root hats, some of them painted with family and clan crests. As well, contemporary Haida weaver Isabel Rorick has contributed wondrous works in homage to those made by earlier generations of women.
Beautifully made historic objects, including horn spoons, berry baskets, and bentwood boxes for food storage and cooking, reveal, again, the attention and reverence paid to the everyday. As Jones said while touring the Straight through the show, the handling, preparation, and consumption of food are arts in themselves, and evince respect and gratitude for the plants and creatures harvested. They also suggest an ethos that deplores waste.
Haida art, Jones added, “communicates who we are and where we come from”, and is the visual complement to the nation’s oral histories. Asked why Haida belongings hold such great appeal to non-Haida viewers, she answered that it’s the humanity that they reveal. There is also the deep feeling in Haida Now that the immense time, energy, and skill invested in the making of so many of the works convey a deep commitment to social, cultural, and spiritual beliefs. They also imbue these works with power—and the spirit of their makers.