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Review

Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual

By Bruce Grenville, Scott Steedman

Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid

By Robert Bringhurst

November 4, 2013

Review By Karen Duffek

The diversity that characterizes historical and modern art practices in British Columbia belies the simple dualities within which they are often framed. Common among these dualities is the division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art, which rests in turn on an understanding of Aboriginal and Western cultures as distinct monoliths. Both of these books, seemingly unrelated in their subject and scope, contribute in complementary ways to more complex discourses about British Columbia’s art and artists. 

Like the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery for which Visions of British Columbia was published – a show aimed at local and international audiences during the 2010 Winter Olympics – this book’s purpose is to provide an introduction to the province through the eyes of its artists. It does so by presenting a multiplicity of media and narrative strategies as it pairs works by thirty-seven of the province’s artists with excerpts of texts by BC writers, poets, and orators. This gathering together forms the “manual” of the book’s subtitle: visions for negotiating how we, as British Columbians, may apprehend and, at the same time, define this place. Many of the selections of artists and wordsmiths are not surprising since they are drawn from the acclaimed and the well known. Yet the pairings, made by editors Bruce Grenville and Scott Steedman, are inspired and seldom predictable. Opening the book near the middle (an approach that its non-linear structure invites), I find Daphne Marlatt’s powerful lament, generation, generations at the mouth – poetry that hooks straight into the plea for salmon underlying Susan Point’s sculptural work, Consonance, with which it is paired. Elsewhere, while it would have been refreshing to place Robert Davidson’s work in dialogue with a writer other than Bill Reid, juxtapositions such as Brian Jungen’s Cetology with Douglas Coupland’s City of Glass, and Emily Carr’s Scorned as Timber with Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt, create provocative dialogues across genres and through time. 

In his introductory essay to Visions, Grenville points to works that “consider the long and often problematic role of art in the documentation of social history and the construction of the heroic figure” (7). Certainly the late Haida artist, Bill Reid (192098), became such a hero, and although he may ultimately receive greater recognition for his intercultural role in global art worlds (see Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art, edited by Karen Duffek and Charlotte Townsend- Gault, 2004), he is more commonly celebrated in the Canadian landscape as the quintessential Haida responsible for the “renaissance” of his mother’s culture. Reid is best known for his gold and silver jewellery featuring Haida motifs, and his monumental public sculptures in wood and bronze. Yet Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid places into the foreground Reid’s creative output as a writer and former broadcaster: his essays, articles, lectures, and unpublished manuscripts, which were previously widely scattered and difficult of access. Compiled and edited with both scholarly rigour and tenderness by Robert Bringhurst, this book was first published in 2000 and has since become an indispensable resource: a kind of archive for critical and ongoing analysis of the narratives created by and around Reid. Now, for this second edition, Bringhurst has added two early texts to the original collection of thirty, spanning almost four decades of Reid’s career, from 1954 to 1991. “This book is many things,” Bringhurst notes in his updated introduction, “but one of the most important things it is, in my opinion, is the story of a long and conscious journey from one pronoun to another” (11). How Reid wrestled with that journey from “they” (in which he mourned the apparent death of Haida culture) to “we,” where he took a prominent role in advocating for Haida land rights while still arguing, controversially, that Haida art belongs to the world, is a major thread linking Reid’s own narratives to one another – and to the larger, multi-voiced stories of twentieth-century art and history in British Columbia and beyond. 

Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual
Edited by Bruce Grenville and Scott Steedman
Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre; Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2010. 256 pp. Illus. $40.00 paper.

Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid
Edited, with commentary and notes, by Robert Bringhurst. 2nd expanded edition
Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2009. 240 pp. Illus. $24.95 paper.