Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art
November 4, 2013
Review By Karen Duffek
A book of this kind – large and sumptuous, rich with colour photo graphs of historical and more recent Haida art from the Northwest Coast, and featuring a dozen essays by Haida and non-Native contributors – enters an arena no longer limited to matters concerning aesthetics and connoisseurship. Today, any publication or exhibition of First Nations art in British Columbia is complicated by a broader context of discussion about the social relations between these audiences and the terms of reference by which the works themselves are understood, categorized, and valued.
Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art was published to complement a major exhibition of the same name at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), held from 10 June to 17 September 2006. That the exhibition was organized and shown at the VAG rather than an ethnology museum is not insignificant. First Nations art has achieved a belated but critical presence in Canada’s art museums, with 2006 also marking the National Gallery of Canada’s first one-person exhibition of an Aboriginal artist, Norval Morrisseau. At the VAG, which has a longer history of showing Native art, Raven Travelling was marketed as “groundbreaking” both because it was, surprisingly, the first large survey exhibition of Haida art ever to be assembled from international public and private collections (over 250 works) and because exhibitions about First Nations culture now lack legitimacy unless ac- complished through collaborative curatorship. Both exhibition and book were a joint effort of VAG chief curator Daina Augaitis and other staff; selected representatives from the Haida Nation, including co-curator Vince Collison and advisors Lucille Bell, Nika Collison, and Irene Mills; and researchers/facilitators Peter Macnair and Jay Stewart.
As a publication, Raven Travelling remains a tangible reminder of the exhibition, illustrating 140 of the works assembled; it also expands the scope of the discussion beyond what could be expressed in the show’s wall texts. The focus of the book is ostensibly on “masterworks” of carving, painting, basketry, and other media. As we have come to expect with books on Native art, it offers a visual feast of images, the majority of photographs emphasizing the idea of masterpiece through the isolation and dramatic lighting of individual works. Yet in the written essays and commentaries, particularly those by Haida contributors, the book’s focus shifts from asking “What is Haida art?” to a question that is ultimately central to Raven Travelling: “What is Haida?” The answer, perhaps paradoxically for a book about art, is that it’s not all about art. Or that to speak about Haida art only as “art” in the aesthetically autonomous, modernist, universal sense – itself a hard-won struggle of reclassification – is only part of the picture and obscures the place of these things within Haida knowledge systems.
Even as Raven Travelling marks an enormous effort to display and promote Haida art in the public realm, throughout the book the point is clearly made (and repeated) that these objects cannot be separated either from Haida history, narratives, and genealogies or from broader contests over representation, governance, and land and resource rights. It opens, for instance, with a reflection by Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation and member of the Raven clan, that locates “being Haida” in the collective experience of living on and caring for Haida Gwaii (3). Three excerpts from Haida oral narratives are shared in Haida and English, presented as both “the beginning of our beginnings” (7) and intellectual property (11). Marianne Jones (Taas Lanaas clan), in her essay on the relationship between Haida artists and Haida Gwaii, notes that, for artists gathering their materials from the land, “access to suitable areas and the sustainability of traditional materials have become overriding concerns. These two issues could define the future of traditional Haida arts, especially for artists living away from the islands” (30). Nika Collison (Ts’aahl Eagle clan) declares the “social function” of Haida art as its “truest responsibility” (59), adding, “The important details supporting the art are not spelled out in the art – they are contained in our oral histories” (63).
Indeed, this is not a book displaying its credentials through academic citations and extensive footnotes. There is no bibliography; Haida experience and cultural knowledge are the primary points of reference for Raven Travelling’s numerous first-person narratives, situating it as a significant contribution to the existing literature on Haida art. Ethnologist Peter Macnair’s essay, by contrast, represents a voice outside Haida experience. His comparative, analytical approach to stylistic development and attribution – more closely aligned to the kind of scholarship characterizing Robin Wright’s Northern Haida Master Carvers (2001) and George MacDonald’s Haida Monumental Art (1983) – is nevertheless an important contribution for artists rebuilding their knowledge about specific art styles and communities seeking to identify their cultural patrimony in museum collections around the world. There is little commentary offered by the other contributors that is specific to the artefacts illustrated here. Noteworthy is the conversation between writer Jacqueline Gijssen and spruce root weaver Isabel Rorick (Y’akw ’lanas clan) – a welcome shift of the “Haida art” spotlight from masks and totem poles towards both mastery and inventiveness in traditional women’s practice.
Relative to the exhibition, Raven Travelling offers greater opportunity to view critically the discursive frameworks within which Haida art has been or is currently being presented. The context it sets is apparently restricted, though, to the homeland of Haida Gwaii since the significant urban presence of Haida people receives no comment. Assumptions about cultural boundaries and their protection remain largely unproblematized throughout the book, despite the important roles most of the writers continue to play as advocates for Haida cultural and political concerns in the public realm. And the challenge to colonial discourses underlying many of the Haida contributions to Raven Travelling does not appear to extend to the prevalent use of “formline” terminology – a discourse rooted in formalist art-historical methodologies. Still, the book’s final chapter is refreshingly contrarian with regard to prevailing notions of rules and boundaries. Featuring conversations between Augaitis and three leading artists – Robert Davidson (Tsahl Eagle clan), Don Yeomans, and Michael Nicol l Yahgulanaas (Yahgu Laanas Raven clan) – the exchanges demonstrate divergent ways of speaking about both compression and expansion in Haida art, and of engaging simultaneously with reclaiming cultural practice and locating it firmly in the present moment.
Raven Travelling represents a significant and strategic step for the Haida in their goals of bringing home some of the world’s diaspora of Haida cultural treasures and achieving greater autonomy over culture and resources. Establishing strong relationships with international museums is key, now that books and exhibitions have become a highly visible way of gaining public recognition and support for related political initiatives. As such, it is understandable, but also unfortunate, that methodological questions about the processes of collaboration and negotiation were left unasked. How did institutional procedure meet community protocol? What was shared and what was learned? But this year the raven travels back home with the opening of the new Haida Gwaii Museum and Haida Heritage Centre at Qay’llnagaay. New stories will be told and new chapters written.