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Carrying on Irregardless: Humour In Contemporary Northwest Coast Art

By Peter Morin, Martine J. Reid, and Mike Robinson, Editors

Review By Judy Jansen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 181 Spring 2014  | p. 157-58

An exhibition and catalogue devoted to humour in contemporary Northwest Coast art was long overdue. Martine Reid’s and Peter Morin’s Carrying on Irregardless: Humour In Contemporary Northwest Coast Art positions itself as the Northwest Coast equivalent of Allan Ryan’s seminal examination of eastern Canadian First Nations art, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art (1999). The catalogue’s front cover, Nicholas Galanin’s, Things Are Looking Native, Natives Are Looking Whiter (2012), a witty, uncanny splicing of Edward Curtis’s nostalgic photograph of a Tewa girl with a photograph of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), creates high expectations.

Peter Morin’s catalogue contribution, “Another One Bites The Dust: Five Short Essays That Say Basically the Same Thing,” converts the traditional curatorial essay into stand-up comedy. Morin shows how humour functions as a survival tool in First Nations’ culture. His essay, a crash course on First Nations’ worldview, immerses the reader in an anecdotal history that juxtaposes funny aunts with the silence of children in residential schools. Without relying on traditional curatorial strategies, Morin contextualizes the exhibitions works.

Martine Reid’s essay “The Irony of Things: Humour in Contemporary Northwest Coast Art” attempts to tease out answers to the question “What is Funny?” by citing scholarly research on irony, parody, and satire. Reid points out how First Nations humour was ignored by European missionaries, civil servants, and anthropologists, serious people whose mandate didn’t include humour. The second section of her essay provides a historiography of the Trickster’s role in Northwest Coast art and culture.

The catalogue includes attractive photographs of works in diverse media by contemporary First Nations Northwest Coast artists including Shawn Hunt, Nicholas Galanin, Skeena Reece, Arthur Renwick, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, and Jessica Wood, who deploy humour to get at complex issues of historical perspective, appropriation, and self-representation. The momentum generated by these contemporary works, the opportunity for correspondences, associations, and linkages to be formed, is diffused by the interspersion of Bill Reid’s whimsical and intimate drawings and marginalia. The opportunity to incisively explore humour in contemporary First Nations Northwest coast visual art is undermined by the catalogue’s selection criteria: “[w]orks in ‘Irregardless were selected for their aesthetic qualities, the clarity with which the author’s humoristic points were made, and their sense of fun and playfulness, the two main ingredients of humour” (6-7). Published at the same historical moment that the Idle No More movement began occupying national headlines, the catalogue’s selection criteria of fun and playfulness seem quaint and out of date.

At the outset, the “Irregardless” catalogue cites Allan Ryan’s examination of irony, parody, and satire as political strategies in contemporary eastern Canadian First Nations visual art, and sets up an expectation that it will pursue a similar approach to First Nations Northwest Coast visual art. The catalogue’s contemporary works would have benefited from a theorization of humour that considered their political agenda. The curatorial decision to select works on the basis that they be fun and playful is curiously out of touch with the catalogue’s and exhibition’s foundational concept: taking First Nations Northwest Coast humour seriously.

Carrying on Irregardless: Humour In Contemporary Northwest Coast Art
Peter Morin, Martine J. Reid, and Mike Robinson, editors 
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 120 pp. $24.95 paper