Intangible: Memory and Innovation in Coast Salish Art
At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until December 10
Intangible is a small exhibition with a large theme. Tucked into temporary exhibition space at the Bill Reid Gallery, it spotlights the work of six Coast Salish artists: Aaron Nelson-Moody, lessLIE (Leslie Sam), Marvin Oliver, Ostwelve (Ronnie Dean Harris), Roxanne Charles, and Tracy Williams (Sesemiya). Their innovative art ranges through nontraditional media and materials, from video and performance to blown glass and hammered copper. At the same time, these artists are reconstructing cultural knowledge through the teachings of their elders and connections with ancestral lands.
During the recent media preview of the show, guest curator Sharon Fortney addressed individual works while also speaking about the difficulties contemporary Coast Salish artists face in recovering “intangible” cultural knowledge. Much has been lost in the past century and a half through government suppression of First Nations cultural expression—cultural genocide, really, although Fortney didn’t use that term. Another element of intangibility relates to the intensely private nature of many Coast Salish ceremonies and their attendant masks.
Coast Salish territory, which includes the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria and large swaths of upper Washington state and southern British Columbia, is peopled by some 70 distinct nations and tribes, not all of them recognized by government authorities. Since contact and through periods of intense urban development, Indigenous groups have been forcibly displaced, villages razed and paved over, and belongings carried off to museums on the other side of the continent. For the six artists represented in the show, recovery of cultural knowledge has been essential to their practices.
One of the most powerful statements about the difficulties of rediscovering and reclaiming what has been lost, and moving forward with a new understanding of what is possible, is Ostwelve’s video Speak of What You Know. A hip-hop and spoken-word artist, actor, director, and composer of Stó:lō/St’át’mc/Lil’wat/N’laka’pamux ancestry, he told visitors at the preview that he uses media art to “totemize” his experience. His work takes viewers through lands that were sacred to past generations of his family, including the confluence of the Fraser and Harrison rivers. At the same time, his narration uses metaphors of baskets, boxes, and the shattered fragments of cultural knowledge to describe his creative journey.
Also moving and evocative are costumes and performances created by Roxanne Charles, a mixed-media artist from Semiahmoo First Nation. Here and Now is a voluminous dress, woven with community involvement from yellow and red cedar and lengths of recycled fabric. It is accompanied by a video of Charles’s performance wearing it, and speaks to a number of social and political issues, including violence against Indigenous women. Another costume, Silently Suffocated, is both beautiful and disturbing. It is woven out of long, eloquent strips of indigenous materials such as cedar as well as strands of invasive plants, such as English ivy and Himalayan blackberry, found in Semiahmoo territory. A woven mask entirely covers the face of the mannequin on which the costume is displayed, demonstrating how it would obscure the features, blind the eyes, and silence the voice of whoever wears it.
Cowichan artist lessLIE also spoke at the media preview, describing the evolution of his three striking paintings, each one seamlessly integrating Coast Salish design forms, such as “trigons, ovals, and crescents”, into corporate logos conspicuously found in Coast Salish territory. These include the Vancouver Canucks’ killer whale, which lessLIE has made more “culturally correct”; McDonald’s golden arches, into which he has inserted salmon heads and the suggestion of reversion to a healthier Indigenous diet; and the Starbucks mermaid, to which he has again appended salmon, along with a pattern of ocean waves. These re-appropriated designs pose questions, the artist says, about how Coast Salish people “fit into capitalist society”.
“These contemporary works are about reawakening memory, honouring the vitality of Coast Salish art traditions, and challenging visitors to consider the issues affecting community members’ lives today,” Fortney writes in the exhibition catalogue. Then she asks us to leave our preconceptions at the door. “Respect and the ability to listen are key to understanding the messages these artists wish to share.”