Vancouver Art Gallery celebrates its Indigenous collaborators

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      On one of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s upper levels, down a quiet hall, through a set of big, sliding doors, a group of architects and project managers are being taught how to weave.

      It’s nearing the end of the lesson, and the room is buzzing with energy as each person inspects their red-and-white handiwork (some seemingly prouder than others, but all smiling nonetheless). The three artists leading the workshop—Chepximiya Siyam’ Chief Janice George (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh/Squamish); Skwetsimeltxw Willard “Buddy” Joseph (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh/Squamish); and Qwasen Debra Sparrow (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm/Musqueam)—float from table to table, chatting and joking with the group.

      The thing these attendees have in common—aside from a deepened appreciation for the art of Salish weaving—is that they’re all working on the design for Vancouver Art Gallery’s new building. Led by CEO and executive director Anthony Kiendl, the gallery has put incredible effort into creating a new, purpose-built home that properly, respectfully, and even radically engages with and incorporates local Indigenous culture.

      “When I moved here three years ago, my very first meeting on my very first day—it was even actually the week before I started—I met with Debra [Sparrow] and her brother Wayne, who’s the Chief of Musqueam,” Kiendl says. “They gave me a lot of information that really set the stage for all of this to happen.”

      In the months and years since that initial conversation, the gallery has worked closely with Sparrow, Joseph, George, and qʷənat Angela George (səlilwətaɬ/Tsleil-Waututh) to bring Coast Salish art and knowledge to the forefront of the new building. A big part of that has meant having the artists collaborate directly with the project’s design architects at Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron, and its architects of record at Perkins&Will Vancouver. Since 2021, there have been countless meetings over Zoom, plenty of samples mailed back and forth between Canada and Switzerland, and even an in-person trip for Joseph and George to Herzog & de Meuron’s Basel headquarters in 2022.

      Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      “By that point, we had already built some small one-to-one scale mockups,” says Jeremy Addison, project director for the new Vancouver Art Gallery building and an architect with Herzog & de Meuron, of the artists’ visit to Basel. “We wanted them to see the mockups and also to start inputting on some of the more detailed design questions that we were facing as architects having this facade engineered. We wanted their input on elements of that stage of the design process, because the collaboration doesn’t just start and stop at the concept stage—it goes all the way through.”

      That concept includes, most notably, a woven metal exterior that will wrap around the building. Taking the techniques of traditional Salish weaving and implementing them using non-traditional materials—on a massive scale, no less—is no easy task, admits Addison, adding that the artists even started experimenting with metal themselves in order to better determine how it could work.

      “The building, of course, has to function as a building—it has to have a certain design life, it has to be maintainable, cleanable, et cetera,” he explains. “So we are working very much in that architectural reality, and that’s exactly what this exchange is all about. This weaving technology—which is nevertheless fascinating, and has a cultural genesis of its own—how do we translate that into something which is engineered and durable and corresponds to all the criteria that we expect in contemporary buildings?”

      The significance of their involvement in the project is not lost on the artists, three of whom—Joseph, George, and Sparrow—sit in a circle after the weaving workshop to reflect on the process thus far.

      “The world is ready to see this kind of building,” says Joseph. “We’ve done a bit of travelling—this isn’t happening everywhere. When we talk about reconciliation, specifically with this building—there are a lot of definitions, because we don’t know what it is. We put our heads and hearts and minds together, and this is what came out of it.”

      George, who is Joseph’s artistic collaborator and wife, expands on what it means to them—both as artists and as representatives of their Nations.

      “It’s putting the face of our people in the city,” she says. “Helping people recognize that we are the first people here, and we’ve been here for a long time, and we’re not going anywhere. Nobody’s going anywhere! We’re all going to be here. So working together—weaving everybody together, weaving the building together—it’s going to be a huge thing. It’s going to be so magnificent.”

      qʷənat Angela George, Love of our Mother, the Inlet, 2019, sheep wool.
      Phto courtesy of the artist.

      For Sparrow, it’s also an important opportunity to educate the public on Salish art, and to showcase the intelligence of Indigenous people.

      “We’ve been underestimated by society forever—‘What were Indigenous people doing?’—and there’s a whole shift now,” she explains. “We’re going to see the balance. We look around us right now in Vancouver. ‘Wow, look at it!’ It’s a massive place of buildings and structures. We’ve walked through the city all of our lives and have never seen ourselves here. And now because of Anthony [Kiendl] stepping forward, our presence is here. And we’re honoured for that.”

      The world is ready to see this kind of building.

      Works by each of the four weavers are going to be on display in the gallery’s current building from December 16 through to May 2024. Rooted Here: Woven From the Land showcases the breadth of each artist’s career, and dives into the beautiful, complicated history of Salish weaving. It will also display some of the progress pieces of the new building, further demonstrating the artists’ crucial part in its design and implementation.

      “I think the exhibition is really going to give people an understanding of what the collaboration means—the kind of generosity of the collaboration,” says show curator Richard Hill. “I think what was really striking to me was the willingness [of the artists] to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to help you do this.’ ”

      As we get closer and closer to the first shovel poking its way into the ground at 181 West Georgia Street (which is set to happen in early 2024), one thing seems to be for certain: the world will be paying attention. There is the building itself, which will undoubtedly be a feat of architecture and art and engineering—but there is also what the building represents.

      “Everybody’s watching Vancouver and what’s happening here: reconciliation and how we’re working together,” says George. “Because not a lot of people are doing that. Even from people we talk to about our decolonizing work, some people are afraid to even talk about it. They’re afraid to say the words, afraid that somebody’s listening who might stop them from doing the work that they’re doing right here. Things are happening and they’re happening fast. We’re ahead of a lot of people, here in Vancouver, and I think this gallery is just the epitome—it’s just going to show it. And I find that so exciting. Our ancestors would be proud.”

      Rooted Here: Woven From the Land opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on December 16.