March 6, 2014
Review By Martha Black
This is the catalogue for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Charles Edenshaw exhibition. Curated and edited by Robin K. Wright, Curator of Native American Art and Director of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum and Professor of Art History in the School of Art at the University of Washington, with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Chief Curator/Associate Director, Daina Augaitis, and advisors James Hart, Chief 7Idansuu, and Robert Charles Davidson, guud san glans, two distinguished artists and Edenshaw descendants, the exhibition brings together, for the first and very likely only time, exceptional works from thirty-two North American and European museums and nineteen private collections. Most are reproduced in this beautifully designed and illustrated book that is a bargain at $39.95. Essays by Haida artists and scholars (Stacey Brown, Nika Collison, Robert Charles Davidson, guujaw, James Hart, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson) and non-Haida scholars (Daina Augaitis, Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Bill Holm, Alan Hoover, Aldona Jonaitis, Bill McLennan and Karen Duffek, Robin K. Wright) explore themes of tradition and narrative, style and attribution, innovation and legacy. Taken together, the texts encapsulate current thinking about First Nations art history.
Holm’s seminal essay, “Will the Real Charles Edenshaw Please Stand Up?: The Problem of Attribution in Northwest Coast Indian Art,” appears here in an edited version. Originally published in 1981 in The World Is As Sharp As A Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff (Donald Abbott, ed., British Columbia Provincial Museum), it provides a baseline for subsequent thinking about individual style, attribution, and the continuing project of codifying the Edenshaw oeuvre. In retrospect, Holm writes that he would change few of the conclusions presented in his early exploration of what is and is not an Edenshaw but warns that stylistic attribution can be speculative and perilous. Wright’s essay considers some past and present attributions and the path from assumptions and sureties of the twentieth century to today’s more self-conscious and cautious approach. At the same time, distinctive stylistic details showcased in the many illustrations throughout the book support codification of a remarkable production despite the very small number of documented works. In a characteristically articulate presentation, McLennan and Duffek examine Edenshaw’s silverwork and postulate a chronology based on style and historical factors, a project facilitated by McLennan’s digital scans showing bracelets as flat designs. (As McLennan and Duffek point out, Edenshaw would never have seen his work this way: he worked in the round rather than on sheet silver as is typically done today). Davidson, who is Edenshaw’s great-grandson, guides us through the complex design on an argillite platter, analysing the unique organization and spatial tensions that have influenced his own contemporary art. So, while acknowledging that stylistic attributions have been, and will continue to be, subject to change as more information comes to light and the concept of art historical attribution itself is examined, the clarity of Edenshaw’s stylistic signature is also demonstrated.
A modern cosmopolitan, Edenshaw made art works for sale to the ethnographic market (he began working with Franz Boas in 1897) and for the souvenir trade, travelling and selling works throughout the coast. He was a professional commercial carver but at the same time a high-ranking Haida man brought up in and practicing the age-old traditions of his culture, as the contemporary artists interviewed by Collison articulate. Several contributors explain aspects of Edenshaw’s Haida iconography and how it finds expression in new ways. Hoover reveals that innovative, naturalistic, European-style formal elements appear in illustrations of Haida narratives and other works done for non-Indigenous clients. Bunn-Marcuse explores cross-cultural elements in the work, arguing that European imagery does not signal a separate taxonomic category but is an integral part of Edenshaw’s practice. Jonaitis’s essay deftly positions Edenshaw within the modernist framework of analysis, a current concern in Native art history. She articulates the characteristics that allow us to see Edenshaw’s modernism as an underlying theme throughout the book.
The rejection of dichotomies such as definite/possible (about attribution), individual/collective, timeless/changing, oral/written, non-commercial/commodity, authentic/inauthentic, typical/atypical, traditional/acculturated, anthropology/art and even Indigenous/non-Indigenous is characteristic of today’s thinking about First Nations art and a key message in this volume’s texts. One of the dualities undermined in these essays is then/now. Some Edenshaw works illustrate Haida narratives such as How Raven Gave Females Their Tsaw [genitals], the Blind Halibut Fisherman, and the Lazy Son-in-law. Edenshaw told versions of such stories to anthropologists James Swanton and Franz Boas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; different, equally authentic, versions of them are recounted in the book. Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson tells us such accounts of supernatural events are legal lessons and templates for ethical living here and now. The narratives are simultaneously ancient and contemporary; the ancestors are very much part of today’s world. “Whenever I replicate an old piece, the original creator comes through and their hands guide my hands,” said Isabelle Rorick, a master weaver and Edenshaw descendant whom Augaitis interviewed. “They convey the feelings they went through at the time of making their piece.” This volume attests to Edenshaw’s continuing presence and agency in Haida life and the wider artistic sphere.
Robin K. Wright, Daina Augaitis, and Jim Hart, editors
London: Black Dog Publishing, 2013. 256 pp. $39.95 cloth