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"Eagle Clan Helmet"
Ken Mowatt (Gitxsan), "Eagle Clan Helmet," red cedar, hair.
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"Fire Thunder Mask"
Glenn Tallio (Nuxalk), "Fire Thunder Mask," red cedar, paint.
Stories Related Through the Art of the Northwest Coast, October 2, to November 13, Maple Ridge Art Gallery
BY: Helena Wadsley
Over the past 30 years, the art of First Nations people on the Northwest Coast has undergone a clear transformation. Styles and techniques have evolved to bring in contemporary materials and motifs, and artists are influenced by modern issues, often political and environmental. But traditions and folklore remain, pulling stories down through generations, along with the knowledge of carvers, and heritage motifs.
Organized to coincide with a staging of the original theatre piece Raven Stole the Sun by Toronto’s Red Sky Performance, Transformation Tales is co-curated by Gary Wyatt, of the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, and Barbara Duncan of the Maple Ridge Art Gallery in Maple Ridge, BC. Participating artists include Robert Davidson, Susan Point, Dempsey Bob, Norman Tait, Keith Wolfe Smarch, Wayne Alfred, Glenn Tallio, Tim Paul, and Jay Simeon. The show brings together works of contemporary Northwest Coast art that clearly show a sense of transition, old and new in motifs, techniques, and inspiration.
Glenn Tallio’s Fire Thunder mask depicts a figure that was central in Nuxalk mythology — human, yet not. The mask, in glossy red, black and copper paint, shows a horned face with a fiendish expression, irrepressible and intimidating. The Mouse Woman mask by Jay Simeon, the youngest artist inTransformation Tales, is a contrast to this ferocious character. Simeon’s mask has a soft, friendly expression, with paint only around the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Gray fuzz crowns the head. Known as Kugan Jaat in Haida, she takes the forms of mouse and grandmother, and takes on the task of keeping order, particularly if a custom is not followed. She undoes the mischief usually caused by the trickster Raven.
Wayne Alfred’s Tlingit Moon mask gives the moon a human face — the moon features in many myths, stolen along with the sun and the stars by the Raven, which covets the moon’s light. Like many of the other works in the exhibition, Alfred’s carving appears contemporary and traditional. Variations of design and colour may be subtle, as in Alfred’s piece, or more obvious, as in Tim Paul’s use of pale yellows and blues.
Traditional Northwest carving has strict conventions — an artist must learn them and know them well before innovating. Most of the participating artists learned from elders, and are dedicated to passing knowledge on to the next generation. Some senior artists, such as the Nisga’a artist Norman Tait and Dempsey Bob taught themselves by studying artifacts, and all of these artists are actively engaged in the revival of ceremony, mythology and traditional methods of teaching. Traditional art-making consists of interpretation, even when following the rules, but art is also adept at recording changes in a society, and Transformation Tales reflects this. Fierce and transformative, the masks in this exhibition have the power to transport the imagination into the stories while representing the resilience of each artist in retaining a connection to heritage.