Whispers and shouts

By Aaren Madden, October 2012

Starting a conversation on eroticism in contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw art.

Cultural anthropologist Wilson Duff wrote in a 1976 essay, “sexual symbolism is so important in the arts of the world and elsewhere that I feel that its virtual absence on the surface of Northwest Coast art permits us to suspect that we might find it in metaphorical forms below the surface.”

In what may be a first-of-its kind exhibit, seven contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artists have embraced the task of exploring eroticism in Northwest Coast art tradition. For the October show at Alcheringa Gallery—called Lusa’nala (The way we came into this world)—they have created thoughtful, sometimes playful, two and three-dimensional artworks on the theme.

The concept for the show initially bemused some. When Rande Cook invited fellow artist Francis Dick to take part in the exhibition, she wondered, “What does that even mean? And how are you going to depict that in Northwest Coast form?” Elaine Monds, director of the gallery, admits, “To be honest, when it was first mentioned to me, I said I thought you’d have to have a very vivid imagination to find erotica in Northwest Coast art.” 

Monds, however, became convinced of the merits of the project when prominent Kwakwaka’wakw carver Calvin Hunt talked to her about both the idea and a historical precedent for the theme. He had long been intrigued by that Wilson Duff article, titled “The World is as Sharp as a Knife.” In it, Duff suggested that ancient stone hammers, for instance, can be viewed as phallic or vulvic. He and other scholars acknowledge layered sexual imagery in the Sechelt Image as well (an important prehistoric stone carving of a human figure, so named because it was found there in 1921). More recently, Haida argillite panel pipes have shown creatures sharing the same tongue, which Duff interpreted as metaphor for sexual union. His point was that different ways of looking at Northwest Coast artwork overall might reveal layers of meaning that have gone largely unconsidered. 

Calvin Hunt understands the resistance. “When the church came, people were afraid to get involved in the art world and get involved in those symbolisms; it seemed to be taboo,” he says. Sexual imagery sometimes appeared in a shaming context, as illustrated by a 1901 carving of a woman touching exaggerated genitalia. The piece was a potlatch gift from a chief intended to ridicule a rival whose daughter had become a prostitute in Victoria. 

The intent of Lusa’nala is neither to be sensational nor iconoclastic, but to offer new dialogue. “We just want to see where it goes and how it’s handled with the public,” says Hunt. “We are not talking about pornographic stuff; we are talking about traditional Northwest Coast art based on a lot of the old pieces that are kicking around. We are sticking to the boundaries of our art world—not trying to push it in a direction it has never been before, just open up new interpretations.”

The audience can expect those interpretations to be varied and compelling, given the wide range of ages and approaches to formline, from traditional to contemporary, within the group.

That is seen in two artists’ different treatments of the same object, a hammer. In a departure from his usual large-scale carvings, Calvin Hunt reaches back to the ancient stone Duff refers to, an era and medium largely unconsidered by most artists. He painstakingly ground, sanded and polished two stones he found on the beach into two separate shapes suggesting male and female genitalia. These simple objects celebrate pure form and function, but the visual puns are there should one choose to see them. “You are going to know what it is,” he says.

Mervyn Child also engages in that common idiom in Northwest Coast art, in which many things are layered onto one image. Child says his carved yew wood hammer refers to a historical piece that various scholars interpreted differently. Some saw a child holding onto a parent; some saw a man holding his penis. “I thought, well, that’s kind of fun. Why don’t we just make it all of those things?” says Child. “It can be anything you want it to be.”

A bowl he carved from alder also invites various readings. A man and woman encircle the bowl; the man grasps the woman by the wrists. Their heads are thrown back and their teeth gritted. “There is some aggression there, some tension,” Child says. One can read anger, agony, ecstasy, or anything in between, all contained within the empty but charged space of the bowl. A painted split eagle surrounds the couple on the base of the bowl and figures are intertwined in their hair. Child refers to these as “ancestor spirit helpers, helping those two people interact how they will.” A human form is in the man’s hair, for which Child suggests a warrior spirit, and from the woman’s hair emerges, for this writer, a frog image. 

While describing the frog as an important ancestor of the Hunt family to which he belongs, Child allows the interpretation as but one possibility. Instead, he offers a suggestion: “Through my eyes I see a frog, and it entertains my deep memory. Why don’t you use words like that?” Others might see a horse, a bear, a phoenix. “Whoever will view the bowl can interpret it and own that interpretation and feel good about it,” he says. The bowl is imbued with intimacy when the viewer engages in a personal conversation with it.

Francis Dick draws from the deeply personal in her own practice, whether in performance, jewellery, or painting. “A lot of my work has always been about relationships and connection,” she says. Her painting in ’Lusa’nala’ is no exception. A nude woman looks over her shoulder at a departing butterfly. Her hands rest on that shoulder in a self-embrace. A hummingbird sits on her sensually curved upper hip. Beside her, two daisies impart melancholy and a crisp contrast to otherwise muted tones in the scene.

Titled “Farewell”, the painting is the last in a series of five Dick painted as a way to work through a brief yet intense relationship. “I have embraced all of the light and the shadows of this relationship, and I am done,” she shares. 

That light and darkness reverberates in traditional and personal symbolism. The butterfly indicates transformation and departure. The swirling forms in the arms show pure energy, “just about beautiful movement” unfettered by fear, longing or attachment. The flowers offer a meditative silence, but a single falling petal represents Dick herself. “Having been a foster child, it was difficult…I always felt alone,” she says (all of her paintings have a similar, tiny element representative of her self set apart). “The direction of the hummingbird is very obvious,” she points out. “This is about sensuality and expression of love.” 

This painting is particularly meaningful to Dick, since it signifies letting go while imparting the beauty of the woman she was involved with. It aligns with her interpretation of eroticism within Northwest Coast art and provides a feminine counterpoint on an otherwise male roster. “There is a strength about it for me, and yet, there is a softness; this contrast,” she says. “I find it erotic in a beautiful, natural way… it’s subtle and it’s beautiful and it’s honouring. It’s not loud at all. Just this really clear whisper.”

In whispers and shouts, each artist’s interpretation of this seldom-explored theme will offer new ways of relating to Northwest Coast art.


Lusa’nala runs October 4 through 29 at Alcheringa Gallery. Besides those mentioned above, artists include Trevor Hunt, Richard Sumner and William Wasden Jr. Opening reception October 4, 7-9 pm, with singing, drumming and dancing led by Mervyn Child and William Wasden; Victoria Poet Laureate Janet Rogers will read from her recent book, Red Erotic.

Aaren Madden is a Victoria-based writer with an interest in First Nations art.