The First Nations art of Xi xanya dzam gathers many lifetimes of deep talent

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      Xi xanya dzam
      At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until September 4

      Xi xanya dzam, the title of a small exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, is borrowed from the Kwak’wala language. Pronounced “hee hun ya zam”, it is used to describe “incredibly talented and gifted people who create works of art”. Aptly, it is applied here to past lifetime-achievement-award winners of the B.C. Creative Achievement Awards for First Nations Art.

      In addition to spotlighting the accomplishments of Primrose Adams (Haida), Dempsey Bob (Tahltan-Tlingit), Rena Point Bolton (Sto:lo), Mandy Brown (Nlaka’pamux), Joe David (Nuu-chah-nulth), Robert Davidson (Haida), Alvin Mack (Nuxalk), Mary Michell (Carrier), Earl Muldon (Gitxsan), Susan Point (Musqueam), and Norman Tait (Nisga’a), the exhibition grapples with different social and linguistic readings of “achievement” and “excellence”. It also provides an opportunity to consider how these qualities are celebrated and rewarded across cultures. While touring the Straight through the show, curator Beth Carter explained that who gives what to whom—and how honours are bestowed—varies from place to place and people to people. In many Northwest Coast First Nations, she said, the honoree presents gifts to the audience, thanking them for witnessing the event or ceremony and, in so doing, enfolding the honour into that people’s history.

      Organized by Carter and guest curator Lou-ann Neel, Xi xanya dzam represents the first time works by these award winners have been exhibited together. This means that we can see Tait’s big and extraordinary Weeping Volcano Woman mask, with its small frog-human hybrids emerging from its eyes and mouth, alongside Bolton’s exquisitely woven and imbricated cedar-bark baskets. We can encounter Davidson’s highly abstracted paintings, which riff on two-dimensional Haida design components, in close proximity to Michell’s gorgeously beaded moose-hide clothing. And we can consider Muldon’s delicately carved gold bracelet, Killer Whale and Bear, in light of Bob’s Raven Frontlet, with its long beak, black nostrils, and—characteristic of Bob’s distinctive style—heavy-lidded eyes.

      The work of each artist is accompanied by a short biography and also a phrase in his or her original language that is roughly equivalent to xi xanya dzam. (In the introductory panel, the curators acknowledge a team of “language keepers who generously helped us identify words and phrases in each artist’s traditional language”.) Mack is represented here by a Creator Mask, a model pole, and a talking stick, all carved out of yellow cedar. The beautiful Nuxalkmc description of his achievement, “Apcwakmtimutilh ala smayustalh ats,” translates as “We become uplifted by our traditions.” Adams, whose finely woven spruce-root hats and miniature baskets speak of her descent from a line of famously creative Haida women, is acknowledged in Old Massett Haida, “Gin ‘la xay ‘aayaagang”—“She is an excellent weaver.”

      Primrose Adams's Spruce Root Hat, which was painted by Alfred Adams.
      Kenji Nagai

      The artists here work in both traditional and contemporary media and materials. On the one hand, we have Brown’s cedar-root and cherry-bark baskets, executed using ancient coil basketry techniques, which she is credited with preserving. On the other, we have Point's innovative “rattle” in blown and sand-carved glass, etched with an image of two loons. David’s Welcome Mask, made in collaboration with Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, resembles a historic Nuu-chah-nulth mask in wood, but is also executed in glass. And his Drum With Whale Design effectively combines quite different styles of painting and subtly rendered graphite drawing, to beautiful effect.

      Just as the title asserts, all the artists represented here are (and were: Brown passed away in 2015, and Tait in 2016) “incredibly talented and gifted people”. The show is pure joy to view.

      Joe David with Preston Singletary created the glass-blown and sand-carved Welcome Mask.
      Kenji Nagai