Having enchanted viewers with his 2015 VIFF award winner Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, it follows that filmmaker Charles Wilkinson would turn his camera on Robert Davidson. The influence of the world-renowned artist on Haida Gwaii is incalculable. In 1969, when the first totem pole in living memory was raised in Masset, the youthful Davidson’s mission was to revive a culture that had been consigned to the museum.
“If anybody pitched that idea, you’d say ‘It’s crazy; it’s not gonna happen,’ ” Wilkinson tells the Georgia Straight. “But it happened.”
Indeed, the film, Haida Modern, starts with a visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the robust septuagenarian is received by reverent Manhattanites. Meanwhile, Karen Duffek of Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology discusses Davidson’s critical break from modernism. “He experienced the absence of this art from the community,” she says. “He had a different ambition: to bring it back home and not only create for the art world.”
“That’s something that attracted me to Robert early on,” Wilkinson says, “that sense that he has a foot in two worlds, and that he’s not binary. He doesn’t say everything white is bad, everything Indigenous is good. He picks and chooses. And he performs his obligation as a human to discern between things and not just take it by rote, by dogma.”
Davidson himself is a warm and generous presence in the film, discussing the shame he felt as a child when told he was “Indian”, and offering candid insights into his own sometimes painful growth as a father. While paying attention to the concurrent progress of Indigenous rights, Haida Modern focuses largely on Davidson’s artistic evolution, his mastery of technique, his wedding of the natural with the supernatural, and the advent of the luminous new work that lends the film its title (a sequence alone worth the price of admission.)
As expected, environmental concerns dominate. “Nature keeps being the victim,” Davidson laments, wondering: “How can we try to imagine our future? Can we create an image to start changing the direction?” Anyone familiar with Wilkinson’s recent eco-minded work will sense an equivalent anxiety about his own effectiveness.
“Of course I wonder,” he says. In Haida Modern, national Green Leader Elizabeth May comments that “art comes first.” To which Wilkinson adds: “You can write a big brief, but if you give people an image they can relate to, they’re much more likely to act, and I think that’s what I see as the key power of what Robert does… and a little bit in what I try to do.”