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Review

Cover: Glory and Exile: Haida Robes of Jut-Ke-Nay Hazel Wilson | Echoes of the Supernatural: The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson

Glory and Exile: Haida Robes of Jut-Ke-Nay Hazel Wilson | Echoes of the Supernatural: The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson

By Robert Kardosh, Robin Laurence, and Kūn Jaad Dana Simeon | Gary Wyatt with Robert Davidson

Review By Nicola Levell

February 14, 2024

These two large and lavishly illustrated artist monographs were both published in 2022 by the Vancouver-based publishing house Figure.1; each in collaboration with a BC cultural institution: Echoes of the Supernatural with the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Glory and Exile with Haida Gwaii Museum. Despite their different subjects, cover art, content, and authorial voices, these two books have significant commonalities. Apart from similarities in graphic design, content organization, and tactile quality, the most pertinent parallels are manifest in the life histories, cultural activism, and transformative work of the two remarkable Haida artists featured within: Guud San Glans Robert Davidson (b.1946) and Jut-ke-Nay Hazel Wilson (1941-2016).

In his dedication page, Robert Kardosh writes, “This book is in memory of Jut-ke-Nay—and also in honour of all members of her generation who fought to maintain Haida identity and values in the face of an assault on their traditions, lands, and ways of being.” Indeed, the books independently trace how both artists, Davidson and Wilson, grew up in Gaw (Old Massett), Haida Gwaii, learning Haida values, lifeways, oral histories, and arts from their families and elders. They experienced the devastating effects of colonialism and the Potlatch ban on Haida systems of governance, cultural heritage, and natural ecologies, and witnessed the fortitude and resilience of their communities. Despite leaving for Vancouver—Davidson to attend school in 1965 and Wilson to relocate, leaving an abusive relationship, with her ten children, in the 1970s—both artists, over the course of their long careers, continued to live, in Wilson’s words, “a Haida life” (17) making regalia and participating in ceremonial activities, through dance and song, both off- and on-island.

Although Davidson and Wilson were both part of a generation, acknowledged by Kardosh, which fostered and promoted their Haida ways of knowing and sought to vitalize community and cultural practices in the face of continuing colonial conditions, the artbooks and their high-quality illustrations are not focused on the artists’ commitment to traditional artforms and materials but rather on their innovations. While honouring and defending Haida values, styles and narratives, Davidson and Wilson pushed established boundaries to embrace new techniques, media, art markets, and audiences. In Davidson’s case, his artistic practice expanded from three-dimensional argillite and wood carvings to innovate serigraphs and paintings (mainly acrylic on canvas) which are the focus of Echoes of the Supernatural. Whereas, Wilson, who had been chosen as a young girl by elders to apprentice as a button-robe maker, began innovating large-scale story robes in her mid-sixties, detailing Haida narratives and personal memories through appliqué, embroidery, and painting, embellished with buttons, shells, and beads. With a folk-art flavour, these “history robes” are the mainstay of Glory and Exile.

Before commenting individually on each monograph, it is noteworthy that the lead authors of the books, Gary Wyatt and Robert Kardosh respectively, were the gallerists who for decades represented these Haida artists. For Wyatt and Davidson, their art-market relationship was active from 1987 until 2020 (25); in Kardosh and Wilson’s case, the commercial relationship began in the 1980s with the gallerist Judy Kardosh, Robert’s mother, and continued with her son until the artist’s death in 2016. These complex, longitudinal, commercial, and personal relations are tangible in the books’ narrative and tone.  The scope of texts and images reveal a deep familiarity and knowledge of the artists’ works as well as their professional and personal lives. In both cases, the authors’ culturally sensitive and close-working relations with the artists are attested to by the substantial number of direct quotations that privilege the artists’ voice.

Although Echoes of the Supernatural was coupled with an exhibition on Davidson’s two-dimensional artworks at the Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Wyatt, the publication is understandably positioned and marketed as a book rather than an exhibition catalogue. It is substantial in form and content being 269 pages in length and including images of more than 200 artworks as well as archival, family, and professional photographs. It is organized into two two-page forewords: one by Anthony Kiendl (CEO, Director, Vancouver Art Gallery), and the second, titled “A Proposition” by Karen Duffek (Curator, UBC Museum of Anthropology). The first body of text, an epigraph, is an extended quotation by Davidson about the survivance of art and ceremony on the Northwest Coast despite its persecution to near extinction by colonial institutions. He explains, “Art is our visual language. Throughout our history, art helped to keep our spirit alive. Now art is helping us reconnect with our history and ceremonies. The art documents our history as it is happening today.” This emphasis on contemporary meaning and vitality is maintained throughout the book. More specifically, the artist’s voice is present throughout, often in the form of extended quotations drawn from two interviews conducted by Wyatt in 2022. The significant presence of first voice explains the title attribution byline “Gary Wyatt with Robert Davidson.” The artist’s contributions greatly enrich the narrative content providing interpretive insight, a measured and intelligent commentary and, importantly, a critical perspective on his practice.

Interwoven with Davidson’s elucidations, Wyatt’s main body text is organized into two chapters. The first chapter, “Robert Davidson. His Life and Work” celebrates the artist, his resilience and achievements, historically contextualizing and chronologically tracing his biographical trajectory and art practice in text and in black-and-white and colour photographs, from 1969-2021. Wyatt begins with a brief introduction to “Haida formline” in which he explains how Haida art continues to be interpreted through recourse to formline analysis, an art historical terminology attributed to Bill Holm, which Davidson explores in his two-dimensional artistic practice. Although Wyatt mentions Holm’s seminal work, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (1965) in reference to Davidson’s meeting with Holm (12), it does not appear in the bibliography. In fact, the bibliography is slight, a page in length, and appears a little dated and partial. For example, it does not include Gina Suuda Tl’l X̲asii Came to Tell Something: Art and Artist in Haida Society (2014) which contains noteworthy contributions by Davidson. In fact, the author selects only five publications for special mention (38): those by Stewart (1979), Thom (1993), Steltzer (1996), Duffek (2004), and Brotherton (2013). References aside, the first chapter is a rich profile that describes Haida cultural practices, past and present; the role of Haida artists in society; the devastating impact of colonialism; Davidson’s artistic lineage, his apprentice and later teaching practice; and his proactive role in revitalizing Haida ceremony particularly the potlatch, and in learning and promoting language Xaad Kil (Old Massett dialect). In tracing the origins and development of Davidson’s artistic expressions, including carving, printing, drawing, painting, dancing, and singing, Wyatt eloquently and insightfully folds in his firsthand account of the development of the market for Northwest Coast art and charts his longstanding professional relationship with Davidson through a personalized historiography of works and exhibitions. In content and tone, Wyatt’s narrative conjures a closeness and intimacy as he describes Davidson’s personality traits, habits, and deep commitment to his family, Haida community and values.

Chapter two, “Serigraphs and Paintings, 1968-2022,” as its title intimates, consists of a chronological presentation of Davidson’s two-dimensional artworks, with extended captions and many full-page images. It constitutes an exhaustive inventory of the artist’s works on paper and canvas. Notably, Davidson’s voice dominates the extended captions in the form of quotations drawn from the interviews. He describes the history of the prints, their imagery, their connection to oral histories, the Haida language, and relation to family, elders, his lineage narratives, and events. He reflects on the development and refining of his practices, his different techniques, motivations, and mistakes, as well as his thoughts on cultural sharing, sustainability and futures. These chapters are followed by a detailed biographical timeline annotated with images, and a comprehensive list of works (59 paintings and 152 serigraphs) and related activities, plus other back matter.

Glory and Exile is similarly a celebratory, legacy monograph, and like Echoes of the Supernatural, it is organized into two sections. Following a useful map of Haida Gwaii, highlighting significant sites mentioned in the text, the first section offers a detailed and intimate biographical portrait of Wilson, enriched with historical black-and-white and coloured photographs of the artist, her extended family (children, parents, grandparents, elders) and her artworks, from 1980s ceremonial wear to the two story-robe series. It begins with a Director’s Foreword by Jisgang Nika Collison (Executive Director, Haida Gwaii Museum) followed by four chapters by different authors that offer a multi-perspectival, overlapping account of a strong, multifaceted woman, a Haida matriarch, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, activist, a Xaad kíl (Haida, Old Massett dialect) speaker, Residential School survivor, storyteller, and passionate artist. The second section focuses exclusively on “The History Series Xaads Gyáahlaangee,” fifty-one narrative robes created in 2006/7, with descriptive statements written by Wilson (103-221). It closes with An Afterword and other back matter including a couple of pages of endnotes related to the individual chapters, however, there is no general bibliography.

While directors’ forewords seldom attract critical attention, Collison’s scholarly and personal contribution to Glory and Exile warrants mention. Although only two pages in length, it offers an eloquent firsthand Haida-grounded insight into Hazel Wilson’s life, positionality and art practice, expertly weaving together these biographical storied threads with Haida history, the devasting impact of colonialism on community, its echoes in contemporary issues, the resilience, activist spirit, and creativity of the Haida peoples, and her memories of Hazel dancing “moving her Raven-self to the drumming she loved so much, her wings outstretched until she soared” (11). Collison’s situated knowledge and narrative foregrounds Haida values and especially the important role of women, elders and matriarchs or ”k’uuljaad (woman of high esteem, or, literally, ‘boss lady’)” (9) as she describes Wilson’s revered standing in the Haida matrilineal complex.

Building on Collison’s insight, the first chapter (two pages), “Knowledge Keeper of Haida” by Kun Jaad Dana Simeon, one of Wilson’s daughters, offers a moving recollection of childhood and adult memories of her ‘Mama’, an assertive mother, a teacher, a textile artist, an inspiration. Simeon also contributed information to the next chapter, “Hazel Wilson: Chosen” by Robin Laurence, a well-respected BC art critic. Laurence’s narrative offers a biographical sketch of the artist, highlighting her 2005 “breakthrough exhibition of seventeen narrative robes, collectively titled The Story of K’iid K’iyaas” (the tragic story of the ‘Golden Spruce’ on Haida Gwaii) at the Marion Scott Gallery (founded by Robert Kardosh’s grandmother in 1975) which brought the artist “sudden acclaim and widespread publicity” (17). Laurence also documents the close intergenerational relationships between the Kardosh and the Wilson families which extended beyond the world of commerce, with Hazel Wilson’s mother Grace Bell Wilson Dewitt adopting in a Haida ceremony Marion Scott and her daughter Judy Kardosh, and in a similar context, albeit at a later date, Hazel Wilson adopting Robert Kardosh, current director of the Marion Scott Gallery (25). These relational bonds are woven throughout the book and afford it a unique, familiar and informative character.

The first section of the book concludes with Robert Kardosh’s seventy-page chapter, “Waiting for the End of Time: Hazel Wilson’s Challenge to History.” Some artworld hyperbole creeps in. For example, Kardosh opens his essay: “Hazel Wilson’s extraordinary creative outpouring in the last decade of her life stands among the most impressive achievements in the history of art in Canada” (29). Despite the purported “wide popular and critical attention” (26) that Wilson received, Kardosh’s essay explains that the fifty-one robes in The History Series have “mostly remained hidden from public view” (30). To rectify this, a primary aim of the book is to systematically detail each robe to make the series publicly accessible. Kardosh contextualizes and explains the development of Wilson’s textile-art practice, charting the ‘repurposing’ of “button blankets” to use Wilson’s term to what Kardosh prefers to call history robes, story robes, button robes, or ceremonial robes (31)—nomenclature that recognizes and elevates their prestige. As Kardosh notes, these compound neologisms are somewhat inaccurate inasmuch as these robes are not wearable items; they were created as two-dimensional artworks to be wall-hung. Having described the first series, the lion’s share of the chapter focuses on The History Series. Kardosh provides a close detailed analysis explaining and historically contextualizing the imagery and symbolism, and situating and analyzing Wilson’s handwritten statements for each piece.

After the essays, the second and last section of the book, “The History Series. Xaads Gyáahlaangee” is authored by Jut-ke-Nay Hazel Wilson. Each robe is reproduced as a full-page image with an extended caption. The captions are transcriptions of the statements that Wilson penned, first and foremost, for her family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren). The fifty-one storied robes are organized into three historical timeframes: “Part 1) The Coming and Going of the Haida. Xaadée istl’aas ísgyaan ist’íid” covering the pre-contact era articulated in oral narratives; Part 2) “The Mistake. Tlásgudée” encompassing colonialism, missionary oppression, collecting activities, and strategies of resistance; Part 3) “After the Storm. Gat’uwée saalíid” manifesting the firsthand memories and experiences of the artist that reference Haida seasonal lifeways, foodways and feasting; “going to residential school” (208-211), the impact of resource extractive industries, and cultural practices and resilience. The incorporation and foregrounding of Haida (Xaad kíl) translations in this section and elsewhere in Glory and Exile deserve commendation.

The book concludes with a reflective and thoughtful Afterword written by Haida Chief Sgaann 7iw7waans Allan Wilson, the artist’s younger brother, which touches on the fluid politics and practices of storytelling and how stories always differ slightly in their retelling.  While recognizing that his sister’s versions of familial stories may not chime exactly with his own, he recognizes that the core message remains constant. This is the dynamic nature and pedagogical force of orality and storytelling, he explains, and her narratives are afforded additional power and resonance because they have been given tangible expression in her art.

Echoes of the Supernatural and Glory and Exile are impressive tributes to two outstanding Haida artists, Guud San Glans Robert Davidson and Jut-ke-Nay Hazel Wilson. Their materialization reveals the symbiotic and productive relations between Indigenous artists, art critics, curators, and museums and commercial galleries. While these entanglements may raise questions about the objectivity of the narrative content and the promotional and marketing intents of the products, at the end of the day, both books are impressive examples of a particularized type of scholarship that offers in-depth and sensitive portraits of the artists as well as insights into survivance of Haida values and creative expression on the Northwest coast.

Publication Information

Kardosh, Robert, Robin Laurence, and Kūn Jaad Dana Simeon. Glory and Exile: Haida Robes of Jut-Ke-Nay Hazel Wilson. Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2022. 232 pp. $50.00 hardcover.

Wyatt, Gary with Robert Davidson. Echoes of the Supernatural: The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson. Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2022. 288 pp. $70.00 hardcover.