Canadian Aboriginal Art and Spirituality: A Vital Link
November 4, 2013
Review By William Lindsay
Canadian Aboriginal Art And Spirituality: A Vital Link acknowledges right from the start that Aboriginal art forms in Canada have historically been misinterpreted as mere “craft” and that the all-important spiritual foundations of such art have been consistently “discounted or ignored” (i). This text does its part to reverse this trend, being part of the modern effort to dispel the above misconceptions and to force commentators to realize that Aboriginal art deserves a place in the pantheon of great art forms in the world. The Friesens contribute to this effort with their text, and their accompanying biographies make clear that they have worked with, written about, and respected Aboriginal peoples for many years (235-36). The respectful and informative tone of the text and the liberal use of Aboriginal references strengthen these assertions.
From a contemporary perspective, the Friesens examine Canadian Aboriginal art within the context of spirituality, history, and culture. To the Friesens, Aboriginal art is directly intertwined with indigenous cultures and thus symbolizes these cultures in their time and place, as opposed to being mere “crafts.” This fact, combined with the beauty of the art itself in its many forms, pushes Canadian Aboriginal art into the realm of artistic greatness, where it is able to stand on its own among the world’s great art (ii). The numerous and helpful drawings and photographs, combined with the detailed and passionate explanations, reinforce these points.
Chapters 4 through 10 are the heart of the book, and they draw from historic and cultural sources to tell the stories of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. This is done by combining historical, cultural, spiritual, artistic, and contemporary perspectives of Canada’s different geographic-cultural groups, and by presenting chapterlong summations for each. Aboriginal groups examined include the Maritime, Eastern Woodland, Plains, Plateau, Northwest Coast, Northern, and, interestingly, Métis cultures. Each chapter provides brief descriptions of local geography (important to the influence of local art forms), pre- and postcontact history, aspects of local culture, local spiritual concepts and beliefs, and local art forms. At the end of each chapter is an annotated list of modern Aboriginal artists who have been making a difference with regard to Aboriginal art in their local areas. This last section gives modern relevance and context to the overall discussion, showing that Aboriginal art forms are not mere relics of the past but, rather, that they live on and flourish. Hence, although brief in their respective descriptions, these chapters provide sketches of Aboriginal artistic, spiritual, historical, and cultural life that will enlighten novice readers. More informed readers will enjoy the discussion of art and spirituality presented within a “big picture” story of Aboriginal history and culture.
BC Aboriginal groups are treated generously. Chapter 7 deals with the Aboriginal groups and art forms of the Plateau region. Chapter 8 deals exclusively with the Northwest Coast and Aboriginal art, spirituality, history, and culture. Some art forms discussed here include the potlatch celebration, painting, totem pole construction, bone and horn tools, wooden masks and boxes, blankets, canoes, longhouse art, basketry, and crests. Readers will enjoy the descriptions and histories of this great and diverse art. The Friesens point out that so many different regional artistic styles abounded in the Northwest Coast region that certain art forms can be directly traced to specific villages (141). This text thus dispels any stereotypical notion of Aboriginal artistic “sameness” and exposes the great diversity of Aboriginal art.
There are a few drawbacks to this book. The inclusion of maps that clearly outline areas under discussion would have been helpful. As well, the accompanying drawings and illustrations are done by the authors’ son, a talented artist to be sure but not an Aboriginal (1). It would have been appropriate to have exhibited the work of Aboriginal artists in such an Aboriginal-oriented text.
Overall, this book is an entertaining and holistic depiction of Canadian Aboriginal art discussed in spiritual, cultural, historical, and contemporary contexts. Aboriginal art has never been a mere “arts-and-crafts” sideshow in the story of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples; rather, Aboriginal art forms were and continue to be an important pillar, “a vital link” in Aboriginal life in general, as this interesting “big picture” examination highlights. It thus compares favourably with other recent academic texts that deal with Aboriginal peoples in Canada, including the recent An Introduction to Native North America (2nd ed., 2004) by Mark Q. Sutton. The Friesens’ text builds on this story by focusing on the artistic/spiritual components of Canadian Aboriginal cultures, and it does so in an engaging and informative way.