At the Bill Reid Gallery until September 27
At the opening of The Box of Treasures, Kwakwaka’wakw chief Robert Joseph and Musqueam community leader Audrey Siegl welcomed the throng of visitors along with the First Nations singers and dancers who performed for us. “The important thing is that we discover truths about each other’s cultures,” Joseph said, emphasizing the “sanctity” of such gatherings.
Musqueam, Haida, and Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonialists entered the room in procession, singing, drumming, shaking rattles, and holding large, shieldlike “coppers”, enduring symbols of wealth and prestige among Northwest Coast First Nations. Masks were danced, blessings were bestowed, thanks were given, and gifts were exchanged.
Although the events we witnessed were not a potlatch, they hinted at what it would be like to attend one. And they reinforced an important premise of the exhibition: many of the masks on view at the Bill Reid Gallery were never intended to be hung on a wall, but to be worn ceremonially.
Worn and eventually destroyed, as Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick told the Straight in an interview before the festivities began. Indicating two dozen Atlakima or “Forest Spirit” masks installed near the gallery entrance, he said potlatch masks are burned after they have been used four times, adding, “They’re returned to the spirit world.”
They aren’t made for sale, and their destruction and re-creation symbolize the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. White with red, black, and occasional green features, the Atlakima masks were recently made—or remade—by a number of different kikua’enuxw, “good carvers”. Most of them are young men for whom Dick has acted as a mentor and teacher; through him they learn not only how to carve but what their responsibilities are in maintaining the cultural legacy of their ancestors.
Also on display are masks of undersea creatures and beings, originally created for a potlatch held by Chief Joseph in Alert Bay in 2014. An accompanying video, beautifully shot by Marina Dodis, shows the masks as they were worn by dancers enacting the story of a family ancestor, Siwidi, and his journey to the Undersea Kingdom. Octopus, Starfish, Sea Eagle, Sea Wolf, Whale, Sculpin, Wild Woman of the Sea, all are shown in the video as vivid and energetic entities, and then displayed again as still carvings mounted on the gallery walls. The contrast in their impact is startling. You really do understand why the masks need movement, gesture, drumbeats, and the drama of a fire-lit ceremony to animate them and fully manifest their power.
Throughout the show, the beings represented by the masks are named in the labels but the carvers are not. This seeming oversight is intentional and meant to indicate the collective nature of producing masks for a potlatch. (A text panel mounted beside the Forest Spirit masks lists the many young artists who participated in their creation, but does not attribute the masks individually.)
Still, Dick obliged the Straight by indicating some works he had carved himself. Four of them appeared, antithetically, to have been created as art in the western sense, not as working masks. Very large, somewhat flattened, meticulously carved, and highly finished, they include a fierce, blackened Ghost Mask and an astounding, turquoise-faced Volcano Woman. Two small red Frogs—her familiars—emerge from her eyes, and a black Raven flies out of her mouth. Yahglis and Copper Woman complete this quartet of pancultural beings in truly gorgeous works, which seem to blend Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw carving styles. (Dick has worked with famed Haida artist Robert Davidson, and he spoke to the Straight about shared ancestry between some Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw families.)
Another pair of Dick’s very large masks reveal two very different interpretations of the Wild Man of the Woods. The first is entirely executed in ghostly white, with prominent, pursed lips as if he were whistling. The second is a blackened, skeletal face with big, pointed, batlike ears and a scarily toothy, grimacelike grin. Both evoke Dick’s Kwakwaka’wakw name, Walis Gyiyam, meaning “The Maker of Monsters”. As a number of critics have observed, Dick is not afraid of depicting the darker aspects of his culture and cosmos.