New books on Northwest Coast art reveal Indigenous visions of beauty and survival

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      Eighteen years ago, when LaTiesha Fazakas first met the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick, she thought, “Does nobody realize that this guy is van Gogh, this guy is Duchamp, this guy is groundbreaking?” Talking to the Straight in her East Hastings gallery, she adds, “Looking at art history and looking at all those super artists that everybody knows and thinking, ‘Why isn’t Beau Dick’s name on everybody’s lips? He is here in Canada and he is so amazing!’ ” As a gallerist, curator, and documentary filmmaker, Fazakas has been instrumental in making his name known. Dick, who died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 61, is internationally recognized for the power and expressiveness of his carved and painted masks.

      Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism, the book Fazakas edited in conjunction with an exhibition that debuted at the White Columns gallery in New York City, is one of three outstanding publications about Northwest Coast Indigenous art and artists out this season. People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point, written by historian Robert D. Watt and recently launched at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, is a big, beautiful, and comprehensive survey of, yes, public works by that outstanding Musqueam artist. And Understanding Northwest Coast Indigenous Jewelry, Alexander Dawkins’s guide to the specialized art form’s history, iconography, and leading creators, launches at 5 p.m. this Friday (June 14) at the Bill Reid Gallery.

      Beau Dick is admired not only as an artist but also as a storyteller, ceremonialist, teacher, and political activist, and all these aspects of his character are evident in Devoured. Through images of his masks, along with essays by writer and curator Candice Hopkins and artist and writer John Cussans, the book conveys Dick’s condemnation of the capitalist system of overconsumption that is destroying our planet. It poses Kwakwaka’wakw potlatches and winter ceremonials as an alternative way of addressing and overcoming consumerism. For some time before his death, Dick had been discussing these ideas with Fazakas, who has seen them through to tangible form.

      “Beau looked at not just the environmental and economic circumstances of capitalism, but also the spiritual circumstances,” she says, “We are in a time of deprivation of the spirit.”

      With its detailed photographs and deeply researched examination of 85 public art works created by Susan Point since 1981, People Among the People celebrates the person Watt describes as “one of the finest artists that has appeared in our generation”. Speaking with the Straight by phone from his Vancouver home, the former archivist, curator, and museum director says, “She has almost single-handedly…rescued traditional Salish art and its aesthetic from oblivion. What she learned from studying many hundreds of objects in museums in British Columbia and elsewhere, she’s embedded in her work—but her work is still very much her own.”

      Not only has Point been prolific in realizing public-art commissions from Vancouver to Zurich, but she has also been highly innovative in her materials. “She was the first Indigenous artist to work with glass in various forms,” Watt says. He also cites her use of laser-cut aluminum, cast concrete, and Forton, a kind of polymer. “Susan’s art is a contemporary evocation of Salish-ness in a marvellous way.”

      Hand-engraved cuffs by Heiltsuk talent Dean Hunt, from Understanding Northwest Coast Indigenous Jewelry.

      Lattimer Gallery

      Dawkins, an art historian and co-owner of the Lattimer Gallery, says that he and his business partner Peter Lattimer had been talking for many years about the need for an accessible guide to the hand-engraved Indigenous jewellery that is unique to this place. Speaking to the Straight by phone, Dawkins recounts how Understanding Northwest Coast Indigenous Jewelry came about in response to questions their customers frequently posed. Richly illustrated, some of it with work commissioned for the book, and with a foreword by Kwakwaka’wakw jeweller Corrine Hunt, it is the first comprehensive guide to what Dawkins describes as “carved, wearable pieces of art”.

      In addition to explaining styles, techniques, and symbols used by contemporary Indigenous jewellers, the book tells the jewellery’s history as a means of conveying lineage and social standing. Particularly interesting is the way coastal peoples used jewellery in the past as a way of thwarting colonial proscriptions against larger and more obvious cultural declarations. Jewellery was and remains a way of asserting the enduring presence of the First Peoples of the Northwest Coast.

      Watt reiterates that theme, citing the three monumental portals Point created for Brockton Point in Stanley Park. Titled People Amongst the People, these works proclaim the presence of the Coast Salish in the area for thousands of years prior to European contact. “That’s partly why I feel so fortunate to have been able to work with Susan, because I think it’s a really important story to tell,” Watt says. “It’s her story, obviously, and her artistic achievement, but it is rooted in that very ancient story, which is right here. It’s right here.”