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Review

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast

By Ian M. Thom

November 4, 2013

Review By Megan Smetzer

This generously illustrated exhibition catalogue introduces the work of forty contemporary First Nations artists, ranging from emerging practitioners such as Shawn Hunt and Alano Edzerza to internationally renowned individuals such as Robert Davidson and Susan Point. The author, Ian M. Thom, a senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, selected each artist based on her or his technical abilities, exhibition record, and use of traditional Northwest Coast aesthetics. Thom also required that the artists “have a clearly developed style of their own” (1). Interviews provide the basis for the brief biographies that introduce the influences, materials, and techniques used by each artist. 

The biographies document the multiple paths taken to becoming an artist, including being self-taught, apprenticeship, art school, or a combination of the three. Artists supplement their practice by reading ethnography and art history, conducting museum collections research, and interacting with other artists and mentors. Predominant biographical themes include the significance of dance, storytelling, and ceremony in relation to art making. The influence and impact of urban life and residential school, as well as environmental activism, are lesser themes, though no less important. Many of the artists continue to utilize materials conventionally associated with Northwest Coast art production, such as cedar, copper, and mountain goat wool, while others have incorporated glass, bronze, canvas, and paint. 

The title of the book, taken from a series developed by Sonny Assu during his years as a student at Emily Carr Institute (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design), creates an expectation for the reader that is not met through the textual framing of the biographies. Though Thom touches on the deeply troubling history of colonialism and its impact on “Northwest Coast art” production since the mid-twentieth century, Challenging Traditions reinforces rather than challenges many of the biases that have been in practice since that time. Most striking is that, of the forty artists included, only three are women. This gender imbalance is particularly problematic as Thom selected male artists to represent genres traditionally associated with women. There is no doubt these artists excel at what they do; however, there are many talented female artists who would just as easily fit Thom’s criteria for inclusion in the catalogue. This disparity reflects the larger societal biases endemic to Northwest Coast cultural practices since the early years of colonialism, when the traditional balance of power between men and women was damaged through paternalistic legislation and conversion to Christianity. Despite these pressures, female artists have continued to practise and expand upon traditional art forms, and it is unfortunate that this continuity and ongoing innovation is not expressed here. 

In addition, the vast majority of artists included here identify with central and northern communities, and only one currently lives beyond the borders of British Columbia. This selection is consistent with the way in which “Northwest Coast art” has been perceived and received since the 1960s – focusing primarily on northern style and privileging the colonial border over the ongoing indigenous relationships that continue to exist in spite of it. 

Although Challenging Traditions fails to live up to its title, it does bring together often difficult to find biographical information with images of beautifully executed work by talented artists. 

 

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast
By Ian M. Thom
Vancouver & Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009. 176 pp. $60.00 cloth