A canoe that bridges troubled waters

By Linda Rogers, December 2010

An art exhibit shows globalism at its best.

In ocean separates yet unites three artists now showing in the Pacific Currents show at the Alcheringa Gallery: Claytus Yambon, a senior master carver from the Sepik River in New Guinea; Ake Lianga from the Solomon Islands, now of Victoria; and John Marston from the Cowichan Nation. Their collaborative friendship is a bridge across the Pacific that not only speaks for the value of intercultural influence but also for the strength of collaboration in resolving the issues that face aboriginal peoples, the ocean itself, and ultimately all people.

Water is the dominant element in the exhibition, which includes Marston’s bentwood boxes and paddles, and paintings and prints by Lianga—both recognized worldwide for their technical mastery and interpretive genius—along with one very special canoe. 

The now invisible stream that will carry John Marston and Claytus Yambon’s war canoe to its destination flows through the carving and paintings that tell the stories of three men who converge in one room. It is a powerful statement, vibrant in spirit and colour, the tone set by Ake Lianga’s paintings.

When asked about his use of colour and the conventional wisdom that artists from the South Pacific commonly painted in black and white and earth tones, Lianga, whose vivid acrylics speak of the influence of folk art on the great painters of the 20th century, addresses the dilemma of absorbing innovation without compromising tradition. “I am a traditional artist, but the hues in my paintings became more intense when I was introduced to acrylics.”

When asked if his work would be influenced by the exposure to North West Coast artists like Marston, he responds, “Inspired, yes. Influenced, no.” All three come from backgrounds where traditional art is passed from generation to generation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from one another or recognize and celebrate similar archetypes in their artistic vocabularies. 

The opportunity to share has accelerated with the new technology. Curator Elaine Monds, who is delighted she can skype artists in the South Pacific, agrees with the argument that recent discoveries bring problems and advantages: “We can communicate as never before with our world friends. However, modernity can be culturally intrusive.”

In any case, Lianga points out, his vibrant palette maintains the symbolism associated with his tradition. Blue is the all-important sea, yellow is the life-giving sun, and the reds and earth colours are the natural world made more intense by our increasing awareness of their evanescent nature.

The red cedar canoe that is the sculptural centrepiece of the Pacific Currents show is a metaphor for the friendship among the represented artists. Although it is a traditional Sepik River war canoe, its connotations make a larger circle in the water. The 17-foot log comes from a Ladysmith beach where it was discovered by Salish artist John Marston. When Sepik sculptor Claytus Yambon, who was visiting from Papua New Guinea during the “Hailans to Ailans” event last year, saw the log, he decreed the two should carve it together according to Sepik design. Marston, a young artist who regards Yambon, a village chief, as a mentor, quickly agreed.

The result is globalism at its best, without outsourcing and compromise. The wood is from the rainforest, the painted designs from both cultures, and the masks that adorn its bow the signatures of both artists: Yambon’s crocodile with stone teeth from the North Coast and Marston’s serene moon mask, which reverberates the exquisite modernist gifts of the late Art Thompson, another stream in the river of life.

Monds sees the show as a satisfying moment in her life, which has been dedicated to the promotion of indigenous art and artists and the understanding of their culture. “There is a tendency to think of indigenous artists on Vancouver Island as being quite apart from other groups in the Pacific, but there is much common ground among Pacific peoples—commonalities of belief, tradition, artistry, lifestyle, relationships with land, postcolonial history, and other things.” She describes this exhibition as a cross-cultural conversation among artists on the Sepik River, Vancouver Island, and the Solomon Islands: “By bringing artists together from these three important carving traditions, this exhibition is in many ways a culmination of Alcheringa Gallery’s 25 years of working with artists from various parts of the Pacific.”

One day before the opening Yambon is carving holes for the shells he has brought for the eyes. This final gesture resonates the Buddhist dotting of eyes that gives sight to the dragon boat that will navigate perilous seas. He tells me the canoe will call out its spirit name when it is blessed at the opening, allowing him to name it. (The name he receives is “Bummbiandmari.”)

The three artists from geographically remote cultures have so much in common that mutual understanding comes without effort. Family is the pillar of society on both sides of the ocean, spirit religion connects the real and spiritual worlds in which they live and work. 

One marked difference in context is the nature of wood on the Northwest Coast and the South Pacific. Ake brought out samples of the rare and endangered pernambuco and ebony that he loves to carve. These are much harder woods than the red and butter-like yellow cedar that Northwest Coast First Nations shape into regalia, commemorative and practical art. All three men have firm handshakes but perhaps the South Pacific carvers, who have had knives in their hands since they were very small children, have a slight edge for having pushed harder into the wood.

Despite the different temperaments of the medium, all three concur that the material must dictate its own voice. The carver obeys the wood, which tells him what it wants to be. That respect goes through all their cultural practices.

Most of the world population is now aware of endangered reefs and threatened species that rely on the health of the ocean. But no one knows this better than the aboriginal peoples who live with the sea and no one is more qualified to speak of the mystery and majesty of our common element. 

There is no doubt in the minds of the two formidable artists who carved Bummbiandmari that it is a friendship bridge and a statement about the importance of our shared waters. If guns can be made into ploughshares, sewing machines and metal sculpture, then war canoes can transform themselves into messengers for peace and conservation.

The Pacific Currents exhibition at the Alcheringa Gallery opened November 10 and runs through December 31. 665 Fort St, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.

Linda Rogers will continue to look for the words for Peace on Earth this holiday season.