People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point
Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism
Incorporating Culture: How Indigenous People Have Been Reshaping the Northwest Coast Art Industry
Review By Roger Fernandes
November 4, 2020
I was invited by BC Studies to write a review that combined my impressions, thoughts, and feelings about three books: “People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point” by Robert Watt (2019); “Beau Dick, Devoured by Consumerism” by Latiesha Fazakas with John Cussans and Candice Hopkins (2019); and “Incorporating Culture: How Indigenous People Have Been Reshaping the Northwest Coast Art Industry” by Solen Roth (2018).
Each book looks at the topic of Northwest Coast Indian Art from a distinct perspective and in doing so broadens readers’ understanding of traditional art in contemporary Indigenous culture. Each book was written by a non-Native author, which can be seen as a statement unto itself, and the subject of a wholly different book.
I am a Coast Salish artist and storyteller from the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe of western Washington. Besides my own work as an artist, I also teach Coast Salish art and design courses and have helped organize Coast Salish art events. Unlike many of the artists profiled in these three books, I was not raised on a reservation or reserve or in a village. I was raised and educated in the city of Seattle. I came to Coast Salish art at the cusp of its reemergence in the 1970s – not as someone who saw it all around me on a daily basis, but someone who found it in books and museum catalogs.
As I write this, I remember that many Coast Salish artists of that time were not doing traditional Coast Salish art – they were doing the more uniform, familiar and popular northern “formline” art associated with the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples of the Northwest Coast. While again a topic for a different book, it is a subject that works on me, even today, and I will bring that perspective to my review of these books as well.
I will attempt to weave these three books into one statement while also honoring each book and giving to each its rightful individual focus. A little juggling will be involved, but hopefully, not too much. And I will also state that when it was clear that BC Studies was looking for a review blending of each of the three books’ perspectives and stories, I thought of the old parable of several blind men touching and feeling different parts of an elephant – they each described a different creature because they only had their own limited senses to describe the parts of the animal, not the whole. Keep this in mind as Native American / Northwest Coast art is an immense cultural practice and presentation that spans regions, tribes, histories, languages, and experience. So, like those blind men, I admit my views can be limited in perspective, but that’s all I can do.
The first book I read was “Beau Dick, Devoured by Consumerism”, by Latiesha Fazakas. This book was developed in conjunction with a show at the Fazakas Gallery in 2017. Beau Dick, who passed away that same year, was a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw carver of international renown. His deep knowledge and familiarity with his own tribal culture is unquestioned as he was one of the chiefs of his village, always of service to his people and ancestors.
The book looks at how Dick critiqued modern western consumer culture and its destructive impact on Indigenous cultures and the world itself. He did so by using the understandings of wealth in his Kwakwaka’wakw culture, which, in relation to power, is demonstrated in ceremonies where wealth is not displayed as an individual accumulation of goods and money, but as a source of status and identity which only works if it is shared among the people.
The cover illustration of the book says much about the book’s philosophical content, as several carved and painted cedar masks made by Dick are consumed by the flames of a longhouse fire. These symbols of wealth are ritually destroyed in a performance called Atlakima Mask Ceremony, to show that their power is limited by time and should not be seen as symbols of personal accumulated wealth. And while Beau Dick’s carvings are highly sought after by collectors, his concern about the dangers of consumerism supported by the beliefs of his ancestors means that the burnings of these art pieces elevates the worth of the carvings to a cultural and spiritual level that is healing, not destructive.
The logo for the show for which this book was created is a relatively simple drum design that also speaks to Dick’s concerns about the crippling power of consumerism. A monstrously large mouth with jagged fangs eats two figures within it. One figure appears to be Native, done in a traditionally influenced design style. The other seems to be a figure that is also being eaten, one eye blinded by an X and the other by a dollar sign. An interesting small detail shows the Native figure having one foot stepping outside the monster’s mouth, while the other seems to be deep within the maw, too late to be saved. A quote by another tribal carver in conjunction with this design says it bluntly (Dick and his fellow Kwakwaka’wakw artists spoke about this condition of consumerism at length): “Everything gets devoured, devoured, devoured.” (pg. 9)
Beau Dick himself said this is “…. a war on another level; non-violent, but spiritual warfare.” (pg. 10) As an Indigenous artist he believed his art could help the world by showing the true face of consumerism and that this form of destruction reaches far beyond individual greed and competition. The world itself will be consumed. Consumerism must be seen clearly for what it is and what it is doing to us and the Earth itself. Another Indigenous voice, Evo Morales, the former Indigenous president of Bolivia, said at an international environmental conference of Indigenous people in 2010, “Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies.” Both of these Indigenous voices, Dick and Morales, could not be clearer as they speak with a deep Indigenous respect for the Earth.
The second book, “People Among the People; The Public Art of Susan Point” is a thorough examination of the major sculptural works of the renowned Musqueam carver and artist, Susan Point. She is seen as one of the artists who brought Coast Salish art out of the shadows of settler history and placed it on a modern stage. While she is grounded in the traditional Coast Salish art style, she has also moved into more modern western presentations and mediums, all the while strongly displaying the uniqueness of Coast Salish art. In her research of older art pieces as a young artist, she found the design elements “crescents, wedges, v-cuts…” (pg. 7) that were constant and would inform all of her work. She also points out that because of the dearth of modern Coast Salish artwork, she developed her own style.
The author, Robert D. Watt, is a major figure in the history of Canadian art. He obviously sees Point’s work as a major contribution to the legacy of Canadian art. This book displays her more monumental work carved in cedar and sometimes forged with glass and metal. There are other books that focus on her other works, including prints, paintings and smaller carvings, but the author felt there hadn’t been a retrospective of her larger works. This book corrects that oversight. It presents much of Point’s public art legacy, showing house posts, story poles, murals, and welcome figures. Each has her distinctive blend of traditional forms and stories, but also her unique vision as a designer and carver. Her work powerfully and beautifully shares the culture of her people and the many tribes identified as Coast Salish, through traditional stories and practices and through her personal artistic vision.
The third book, “Incorporating Culture; How indigenous People Are Reshaping the Northwest Coast Art Industry” by Solen Roth, looks at a major aspect of modern Northwest Coast Indian Art: the art that adorns t-shirts, coffee mugs, cards, calendars, oven mitts, and so on – the artware industry. It can be argued that this form of Native art is more accessible to the average tourist and consumer and is, therefore, a more powerful form of cultural sharing, but also, possibly, cultural appropriation and misinterpretation. Because of its accessibility in these “gift shop” environments, this type of Native art helps shape a cultural view of Indigenous culture that can be enlightening as well as superficial. Roth recounts the history of this relationship, going back over 100 years to when non-Native Canadians began to see Northwest Coast Native art as visually iconic of the region and therefore a lucrative source of sales.
Roth points out, through a variety of themes, how the Native artists interact with the non-Native producers and marketers of such art and how each group has a different perspective as to the meaning of their partnerships. The non-Native producers and marketplace sellers might have some very basic needs and requirements: sales and profits. However, to the Native artists this type of relationship allows them to make money (and for some a living), to share their culture in a highly visible way, and also to create goods that can be used for Indigenous applications such as giveaway items for potlatches or memorials.
Two small critiques of Roth’s approach to sharing this examination of Indigenous art are warranted. First, as a storyteller, I feel so many of her descriptions called out for a story that allowed us to see personal connections with her observations. She does explain in the book’s introduction that she chose not to mention names of artists and manufacturers and sellers as reputations and careers could be impacted. But I still wanted more story detail to help me shape my understandings of the relationships she refers to. Also, she does not address an important element of the relationships in question; what of the consumer, the people who buy these mass-produced products marked with Indigenous art? What do they believe they are receiving and what do they learn about Indigenous culture through the designs on their souvenirs and collectibles?
Overall, this book looks closely at an underappreciated, but important, aspect of modern Native life – the way our cultural arts are portrayed in the marketplace. And it asks what role Native artists have in controlling and shaping that image.
In the end, we have three perspectives on Northwest Coast Native Art. First is the powerful cultural/political art of Beau Dick who saw the destructive nature of consumerism (and greed and capitalism) and addressed it as directly as he could, drawing from his Kwakwaka’wakw culture in mounting this critique. The second perspective shows how Susan Point creates Coast Salish art and imagery that shares the unique artistic vision of her Musqueam people and parlays that artistic creativity to the benefit of her people and Coast Salish culture in general. Finally, the third book looks at the appeal and popularity of Northwest Coast art in the artware market, which has Indigenous artists working with non-Native manufacturers and marketers and sellers to continue defining the place of Native art in the marketplace outside of galleries and museums.
In total, these books allow the reader to see that Indigenous and First Nations arts are not a relic of the past but are made in modern times by artists whose visions are drawn from their ancestral myths and songs and relationships. An Indigenous arts critique of capitalism and consumerism; an artist’s decision to allow their tribal crests to adorn oven mitts; a First Nations artist who share’s their culture through their public art and outside of the art’s cultural setting. All these are examples of challenges to the traditional uses of this art, acts that can change the art and the culture in ways that can be as dramatic as intending to preserve the meanings of the art for generations to come, or seemingly as simple as a business decision reduced to dollars and cents. And, as they are contemporary artists, all involved in the world of Northwest Coast art have a balance that must be struck – never lose connection with ancestors and the Earth, but also make visual statements that are vibrant in the modern art world.
Watt, Robert. People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point. Vancouver, BC: Figure 1 Publishing, 2019. 208 pp. $50 paper.
Fazakas, Latiesha, with John Cussans and Candice Hopkins. Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism. Vancouver, BC: Figure 1 Publishing, 2019. 80 pp. $29.70 paper.
Roth, Solen. Incorporating Culture: How Indigenous People Have Been Reshaping the Northwest Coast Art Industry. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2018. 228 pp. $32.95 paper.