Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: The Seriousness of Play
At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until October 2
At the recent opening of his exhibition The Seriousness of Play, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas spoke eloquently to a packed room. Surrounded by his paintings, prints, and sculptures, he talked about the spaces that exist within and between art forms—and within and between cultures. He also touched on a contemporary problem for artists of indigenous descent: is this work art or ethnicity? The question, he said, had originally been posed to him by Bill Reid, who shared with Yahgulanaas mixed Haida and European heritage, but whose acclaim was focused entirely on his Haida-identified art-making.
Because of their venues, the art-or-ethnicity question attaches to both Yahgulanaas’s small show at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s forthcoming survey exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (opening May 10). Such institutions seem to contextualize their work in specific cultural terms, even though both artists work in “nontraditional” ways and have shown nationally and internationally in “mainstream” galleries and museums. Although radically different in style and concept, the art of each incorporates elements of Northwest Coast graphic design and often alludes to issues or narratives relating to First Nations people.
But rather than dwell specifically on the complications of ethnically framing art, it may be more fruitful to look at Yahgulanaas’s work through the lens of cultural hybridity and interplay. He suggested this approach while walking the Straight through his exhibition the morning after his opening. Born in Prince Rupert and raised in Haida Gwaii, Yahgulanaas became a full-time artist only after many years of political and community work, focused especially on protecting the islands’ biodiversity. His creative breakthrough occurred in the late 1990s, when he began producing graphic novels in the “Haida manga” style he invented. Yahgulanaas tells Haida tales through a combination of Japanese manga and Chinese brush-painting techniques, executed in delicate washes of colour and overlaid with dense black lines referencing Haida design.
Two early examples, Red and War of the Blink, are on display here in the form of ink-and-watercolour murals on paper. (They were also published in book form, and copies may be found in the gallery shop.) The fluency and hybridity of Yahgulanaas’s graphic art serve a truly international purpose: these stories of anger, violence, and revenge, of battles carried out or averted, are cautionary tales with an antiwar message that speaks clearly across cultures.
Yahgulanaas has also applied abstracted Haida graphic elements to large-scale paintings and sculpture, including a series of works titled “Coppers From the Hood”. Naaxin, a 2013 work from this series, uses pigments and copper leaf on a Mazda car hood to create analogies between objects of wealth and status: cars in contemporary North American culture and ceremonial copper shields in 19th-century Northwest Coast culture. It is appealing and deftly executed.
The most striking work in the show, Craft, an old fibreglass rowboat embellished with copper leaf and fitted out with 10 wooden oars, covered in platinum leaf, is also the most successfully mounted. I have long complained that the interior architecture of the Bill Reid Gallery, which was originally designed as a craft museum, is wholly unsuited to the works on display. With its narrow and overcrowded exhibition spaces, its big windows, and its ecclesiastical features, the building should be a wedding chapel, not a venue for fine art. Yahgulanaas, however, has hung the altered boat from the ceiling in such a way that it is framed by a high, interior archway and backed by a leaded window of rippled and striated glass. This placement beautifully enhances the iconic nature of the sculpture, which alludes to a time when fishers on this coast—all fishers, whether indigenous, Anglo-, or Japanese-Canadian—had a direct relationship with their work. A time before diesel engines, depth sounders, and all the other mechanisms of industrial fishing, when fisher folk read the ocean and the creatures within it with their own, highly developed senses.
The title is a play on words, craft being as much about creativity and skill at one’s trade as it is about a boat or vessel. However that vessel may be culturally constructed, it is what carries us across the sea of understanding.