There’s a wonderful paradox afoot in the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s newly built exhibition space. The Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks is a beautiful room, filled with subdued colours and textures that evoke both rain-grey skies and sun-bleached logs on West Coast beaches. It also boasts state-of-the-art amenities, including seismically stabilized display cases and computerized softbox lighting that responds to conditions outdoors.
Opening Thursday (June 22), the gallery will be the site of long-running temporary exhibitions, the first show being In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art.
And here is where the paradox occurs. The inaugural show is not so much about the old-fashioned and Eurocentric notion of “masterworks” that the gallery name suggests. Not so much about isolating and aestheticizing beautiful and finely crafted objects on plinths and in glass cases—although many of the 110 works on view are undeniably beautiful and finely made. (And most of them are mounted in glass cases.) Not so much about privileging the point of view of museum staff, either.
No, what’s innovative here is that curators Karen Duffek, Jordan Wilson, and Bill McLennan have invited 30 participants from First Nations up and down the coast to look at, handle, and reflect on the historic works in the show.
“For us, it was about identifying a diverse range of perspectives from people from the various communities that created the works on display,” says Wilson as he and Duffek preview the exhibition with the Straight.
What’s on display is very old—many pieces originating in the early 19th century—and ranges from miniature Coast Salish baskets to painted cedar boards that were part of a Tsimshian house front, and from a small Tlingit amulet carved out of bone to a big Haida button blanket, its Beaver crest described in dentalium shells. Instead of focusing on aesthetics or connoisseurship, First Nations participants speak about the stories, beliefs, families, lands, power, and politics these works represent.
Their recorded comments greet visitors in a number of ways, including through speakers set up in a kind of “surround-sound” way among the cases, and an audio playback system built into the headrests of two red leather chairs. “We sought out artists who have spent a lot of time engaging with museum collections in their own practices and learning processes,” says Wilson.
Well-known among them are Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow, Tahltan/Tlingit sculptor Dempsey Bob, and Haida painter and sculptor Robert Davidson. “But we also have included others who might not necessarily be artists but who are knowledge holders and scholars,” Wilson adds. They include Kwakwaka’wakw scholar and professor Sarah Hunt, Jisgang curator Nika Collison, and Musqueam elder and language researcher Larry Grant.
Both Duffek and Wilson allude to the focus of Nuxalk ceremonialist and speaker Clyde Tallio on a Nuxalk mask representing Q’umukwa, the chief of the undersea world. “Clyde is a young man from Bella Coola who is involved with language revitalization and cultural reclamation,” Wilson says. “He describes, in this 20-minute-long narration, its origins and how it connects to his family.”
“Even if you listen to only one minute of that narrative, you get a sense of that story,” Duffek adds. “He is placing his understanding of this thing.…within his history and the landscape he comes from.”
“We wanted the community members’ voices to have a strong presence in the gallery,” says Wilson, who is just completing a stint as aboriginal curator in residence at the MOA. “We wanted their voices and their ideas to be in conversation with the objects that you’re looking at. It’s not necessarily an interpretation of the works.…but speaking of these big ideas that will hopefully shift how the museum visitor engages with these objects or these artworks—these belongings.”
The UBC Museum of Anthropology presents In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art in the new Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks from Thursday (June 22) to June 2019.