Photo: Angus Praught.
"Supernatural man-eater birds from the Hamatsa secret society"
"Supernatural man-eater birds from the Hamatsa secret society."
Beau Dick and other master carvers, The Box of Treasures: Gifts from the Supernatural, Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, Vancouver, March 4 to Sept. 27, 2015
By Portia Priegert
Photo: Farah Nosh.
Sixty-five years ago this exhibition of Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch masks and regalia would have been unthinkable. Potlatches were illegal in Canada from 1884 to 1951, and although they continued to be held secretly in remote locations, participants could be imprisoned for up to six months. The show is remarkable not only because the pieces on display are considered sacred, but also because they are still in use. Indeed, two hooks on one wall were empty when I visited because the masks were needed back in their community. It took the gallery two years to negotiate the needed permissions to display this stunning array, which includes carved cedar masks of long-beaked man-eater birds, various forest spirits and imaginatively envisioned sea creatures.
Beau Dick, a hereditary chief born in Alert Bay, B.C., is known for carvings sold in commercial venues. But this show displays objects he and other master carvers created to be danced, as the gallery’s didactic panels explain, not hung on a wall. The potlatch (which means “to gift”) has multiple roles. It’s an important part of the economic and legal system of Northwest Coast indigenous culture, and is also a pillar of oral history. Guests, who are paid to serve as witnesses, watch as a high-status family brings out its Box of Treasures, which may include ownership of various songs, dances and stories.
Photo: Meredith Areskoug.
"Atlakima (Dance of the Forest Spirits)"
"Atlakima (Dance of the Forest Spirits)."
The exhibition’s video of a potlatch hosted last year by Chief Robert Joseph is an effective bridge to understanding the regalia’s dramatic possibilities. Dancers animate the story of Siwidi, a boy who falls out of favour and is dragged by an octopus to a strange undersea world. Dick, known by his people as The Maker of Monsters, created elaborate masks for Sculpin, Starfish, Sea Urchin and other marine creatures. Some masks are flipped open to reveal other animals – a symbolic transformation so key to the stories they embody. Indeed, Siwidi’s tale shares hallmarks of other mythic traditions in which the hero embarks on an adventure and returns as a leader.
Photo: Angus Praught.
Despite their obvious entertainment value, such stories are also complex metaphors that transmit cultural wisdom about respecting other beings and the land, teachings that in today’s parlance might be called psychology or ecology. For instance, one display includes a mask that shows two red frogs emerging from the eyes of Volcano Woman, who spews her destructive wrath on several villages after two young boys needlessly kill a frog. The boys are spared and adopt the frog as their crest, signifying their newfound bond.
Photo: Marina Dodis.
"Atlakima Grouse Mask being danced at the exhibition opening"
"Atlakima Grouse Mask being danced at the exhibition opening."
With the unprecedented growth of human populations, and the current climate of environmental crisis, it’s easy to appreciate the cautionary messages implicit in many indigenous stories. The wisdom shared through this fascinating show is thus both timely and vital.