Signs of the times

By Aaren Madden, October 2013

Is everything for sale? This and other questions are addressed by contemporary Northwest Coast artists at the AGGV.

In this medium-sized Canadian city and so many others like it, we are bombarded with images. Walking in any retail area, be it shopping mall or downtown, one is sure to come across the iconic stripes of the Hudson’s Bay blanket. And avoiding the Starbucks logo is near impossible, be it peeking out from behind a hand clutching a paper cup or broadcasting its siren call from what seems like every downtown corner. After a while, these images, though fraught with colonial and corporate implications, tend to wash over us due to their very ubiquity.

Which is exactly what makes them such powerful points of reference in an exhibition on now at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Urban Thunderbirds / Ravens in a Material World explores personal and cultural identity among four contemporary First Nations artists with, as the title states, a distinctly urban perspective. In media ranging from photography, painting and printmaking to carving and mixed media installation, the exhibitions hold a critical eye to the urban landscape and all it represents, excavating layer upon layer of meanings that are often hidden in plain sight. 

It started when Nicole Stanbridge, associate curator of contemporary art at Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, initiated a collaboration with Coast Salish artist lessLIE and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook. “I knew both of them had ideas they could see being realized in a bigger gallery space,” she says. “I asked them to come in not only as artists for the show, but also as co-curators, so that what they were dealing with in their work was directly reflected,” she explains.

One gallery space will show work by lessLIE and innovative Coast Salish painter, printmaker and jewellery artist Dylan Thomas, who apprenticed with Rande Cook. Francis Dick, whose practice ranges from jewellery to painting to performance, shares gallery space with Cook. She presents a collection of bold paintings, including portraits of friends and family. Some emanate a tender intimacy; others exude bad-ass attitude. Each of her works represent a unique personal narrative, and perhaps because of that, together they vibrate with the urban intensity of a temporally and culturally diverse crowd; an eloquent cacophony of stories and meanings. 

As such, her work harmonizes with Cook’s paintings, photography and installation, in which viewers are challenged by questions that have no simple answers. In most of his pieces, by placing imagery representative of conflicting ideas into one space, Cook creates a compelling tension (sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant) that critiques modern society’s quest for spiritual fulfilment through consumerism. 

The installation “Living in Love and Light” is one example. Raven, intricately carved in traditional style, sits atop a bentwood box, which holds the light he brings to the world. The box rests on a Hudson’s Bay blanket and is contained within a large shopping bag. “It’s reflecting the commercialization of spirituality,” Cook says. “The figure that gave light—now you can buy it. It questions the viewer: is everything for sale? How can you support consumerism when there are all of these questions about our humanity, our integrity toward everything? It’s very complicated, and that, for me, is what this show is about,” Cook shares.

The Hudson’s Bay Company presence deepens the rabbit hole. “I chose [the company] because they are the ones who actually changed our culture,” Cook explains. “We were able to just buy a blanket, decorate it with our family crests, and now they are called traditional. What does that mean? For me, it’s this whole question of what would have happened if the HBC had not come.” 

But they did, motivated by capitalism and of one of its prime movers, fashion. After all, the fur trade was partly in the service of the European appetite for beaver fur for men’s hats. The shopping bag reminds us that though the coveted object has changed, the appetite remains—and grows ever larger.

Nowhere is this more pointed than in the painting “Ravenous.” The play on that single word speaks volumes in this context. A woman strides down an urban street holding the sacred bird on a leash. “It’s become her pet,” Cook notes. 

But take a closer look at the street scene. The Starbucks logo reflects one of the show’s main themes, reappropriation. Here the logo is reconfigured into a First Nations design. The mermaid’s tail has become salmon, as has her crown—and she seems to smile with wry satisfaction at the assertion of a Coast Salish presence. “It’s lessLIE’s design,” Cook laughs.

The inspiration began for lessLIE when he was in Seattle over a decade ago. “At that distance, it looked like it could be a Coast Salish design,” he said, and kept the idea tucked away. This exhibition presented the opportunity to push some boundaries with design and concept, and led to the unique collaboration with Cook. In the exhibition catalogue, Stanbridge has included their email correspondence for a fascinating firsthand account of the process. 

The installation lessLIE has created based on it is called “Cultural CununDRUM.” A drum painted with the design is accompanied by a poem he wrote that showcases his virtuosity in manipulating and re-presenting language, text and context in order to create multiple meanings in one word. His graphic works are rife with visual pun, but they are made all the more powerful by these accompanying artist’s statements.

“One of the most important [notions] for me was that Starbucks began in Coast Salish territory,” lessLIE explains. He describes the installation as “reappropriation; transformation of something to reflect our cultural reality of having to adapt to attempts at assimilation, colonialism, neocolonialism, and just the reality that Coast Salish people are still here in this territory, in the most urbanized, diverse and densely populated urban areas of the Northwest Coast.”

lessLIE’s painting “Idle No More” will literally assert a Coast Salish presence in the urban landscape. Images of it will be placed in two bus shelters downtown, and two near the University. Says Stanbridge, “It will be right in that urban context, in a space that is usually for promoting this conspicuous consumption that is being talked about. It’s not an ad for the show; the only text is a credit and a link to our website,” she says. “It will be interesting to see what kind of response we get.”

It’s likely that those engaging with the whole exhibition will see Northwest Coast contemporary art—and our visually overloaded urban environment—in a new light. As lessLIE puts it, “our works can engage with modern and postmodern discourse and beyond that. This is our contemporary cultural reality that we are living.”

Urban Thunderbirds / Ravens in a Material World is on at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until January 12, 2014. The First Nations community receives free admission to the gallery (excluding ticketed events) for the duration. For details on related programming, catalogue launch and tours, including an Artist’s Talk by Francis Dick on Oct 10 and Urbanite on Oct 18, see aggv.ca. 

On behalf of Canada’s beavers, Aaren Madden thanks Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, for favouring silk hats and thereby saving these creatures from extinction. One marvels at the effects of fashion’s whims.