Rande Cook: Continued exploration of the formline

By Linda Rogers, July 2011

Rande Cook, Hamatsa dancer and, at 34, the youngest hereditary chief in the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, is showing his evolving commitment to formline painting and carving at the Alcheringa Gallery. 

Cook grew up in Alert Bay before heading to Victoria to attend Vic High. His grandfather Gus Matilpi introduced him to Kwakwaka’wakw design and the idea that through creating art Cook could help maintain and preserve his culture. Other early mentors include Willie Cook Jr, William Wasden Jr, and Beau Dick. 

Since January 2002, Cook has been exploring wood carving under John Livingston. He has also learned to bend traditional boxes from Bruce Alfred.

Though well-steeped in and adept at traditional designs, Cook is moving beyond the parameters of First Nations art forms that were threatened when the white-comers disapproved and misinterpreted their sacred art, to a more contemporary expression.

In the age of string theory and quests to find the connectedness of world cultures, it is a natural progression to seek the universal and break the boundaries of line and colour. In Cook’s world, the familial forms are present but they also accommodate world family as line is used not to separate and protect but to join. Cook has softened the limited colour wheel of North Coast art and the patterns of its iconography. Colour almost blends as his figures reach past tribal and social loyalties. The only assertive colour is red, an assurance that his people know who they are and that their blood is strong.

By such means, his paintings, carving and jewellery transcend the technical lessons he has learned and form their own idiom.

In one laminated carving, a traditional gestalt flows underneath representational figures from the popular culture, the new icons. “My people were always a nation of innovators,” says Cook. “We use available materials to speak the truth of our times. In a sense, nothing has changed.”

Yet discussions of North Coast artists almost invariably end up in the separation of those loyal to either tradition or innovation. Cook disagrees with this facile distinction. “All the great artists of my nation have been individuals. If you look at the work of Willie Seaweed or Mungo Martin, you see very strong personal visions rising from the conventional forms.”

Cook chooses resilient characters, often outsiders, to tell his story. One piece, his Beethoven mask, detaches to reveal the music in the deaf composer’s head. “We all have masks,” Cook says. He asks us to hear through the composer’s ears and to see through the eyes of other masks in his collection.

Cook’s preoccupation with Dzunukwa, Wild Woman of the Woods, a somewhat deranged mythological character who is sensitive to environmental disturbance and attempts to steal disobedient children, speaks to the dislocation in nature and changing roles of male and female in the modern family. By painting Wild Woman in a cubist storm and as a desirable woman, he renders a biological dissection of gender and role confusion. If the Earth Mother is disturbed, he seems to be asking, how can the Earth be healed?

Cook comes from generations disturbed by “education” at residential schools. The history of his home turf, Alert Bay, is a tragic one, a story repeated in indigenous communities all over this home and native land. He realizes the stories of a people whose culture and people have been systematically disrespected by religious and secular institutions must be told before they are forgotten. Truth is the path to reconciliation as he reaches for the modern possibility: one world, and one family.

Like great artists of every genre, Rande Cook has learned the language of technique and is now free to use his various media to express what he feels and knows about his unique position. At once privileged and denied, his work sings because of this ability to improvise. Like Raven, who adapts his voice, Rande is a shape-changer using lines of energy to change the direction of aboriginal art.


Continued Explorations of the Formline by Rande Cook will be shown Aug 6-26 at the Alcheringa Gallery, with opening reception Aug 6, 7-9pm. 665 Fort St, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.

Linda Rogers is always pleased to meet artists who enable her to see differently.