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Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes (2021)

By Ernest Swanson 

March 4, 2021

Review By April Liu 

Exploring the creative possibilities offered by augmented reality (AR) technology, Vancouver-based Haida artist Ernest Swanson has teamed up with the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF) and AR designer Mark Illing to present Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes, an interactive piece inspired by the stories of Walter McGregor, a Haida weather-prophet and astronomer from the early twentieth century. Situated in the heart of Vancouver’s downtown at the MNP Tower at Oxford Place, the piece is one of many exciting new works presented by VMF’s Winter Arts AR Festival, the very first of its kind in Canada, and a trail-blazing solution for viewing public art while adhering to the health and safety protocols of the COVID-19 global pandemic. To gain access to the works, viewers use their cell phones to scan a QR code displayed on the festival’s outdoor signage. This prompts a viewing experience through Instagram or Facebook via Spark AR, where the phone’s camera is activated to show one’s immediate surroundings “augmented” by the virtual piece that appears within it.

In Swanson’s piece, we see the Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes depicted as a large, imposing head with two masterfully carved faces, floating in the sky and surrounded by Vancouver’s tallest skyscrapers. As the viewer interacts with the piece, walking under or around it, the head spins alive on an axis, bathed in waves of light and shadow, emitting magical puffs of magenta-coloured clouds. One soon discovers the head’s hollow centre, which is filled with glassy, translucent spheres with imagery from Haida Gwaii and reminiscent of distant planets or otherworldly eyes. Viewers can further explore the piece by pinching their screens to resize it or by dragging it to move it around. 

Swanson’s work is part of a ground-breaking effort to revitalize Haida astronomy through a combination of archival research, community outreach, and artistic innovation. It is based on Walter McGregor’s story “Canoe People Who Wear Headdresses,” recorded by anthropologist John Swanton in 1900–01. Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes represents one of the eleven supernatural beings in the story, with each figure correlated with specific aspects of the Haida sky and calendar. According to Norman Newton’s research conducted in the 1970s, the story is an important key to understanding an interconnected body of stories from McGregor related to the weather-prophet’s significant role in observing the skies, predicting weather phenomena, and transmitting calendrical and ritual knowledge.

Developed in collaboration with the Dark Skies project led by Nicola Levell, April Liu, and Jisgang Nika Collison at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Swanson’s work is part of a broader effort to open up culturally diverse ways of seeing and experiencing the night sky – its infinite stars, planets, and constellations. The mainstream, popular representations of the night sky are currently dominated by modern scientific discourses and Greco-Roman star mythologies. The Dark Skies project harnesses the power of digital technologies and community outreach to reveal alternative perspectives of the night sky and to underscore the need for dark sky conservation, a global environmental movement focused on battling the detrimental effects of light pollution on humans and wildlife. 

It is a timely issue, as urban light pollution overtakes 80 percent of the world population and 99 percent of the dark skies in Europe and the United States. The towering MNP skyscraper in Vancouver’s financial district, electrically illuminated at all hours of the night and day, is a monument to modernity, urbanization, and economic development. The light pollution emanating from such a building impedes our ability to see the night skies, while countless birds die each year from crashing into the building’s reflective and disorienting surfaces. Swanson’s piece serves as a powerful intervention in this space, vividly bringing forth a Haida view of the cosmos that has been largely displaced by colonial discourses since the days of Walter McGregor.  

Swanson is currently working with the Dark Skies team and fellow Haida artist Derek Edenshaw to visualize all eleven characters in this story as a way of bringing it out of the archives and back into contemporary popular culture. The artists are working in close consultation with various members of the Haida community to integrate contemporary Haida night sky knowledge into their works and to generate awareness of the many Indigenous star stories preserved in archival documents such as Swanton’s publications. The final work, supported by the technical direction of artist Ben Z. Cooper, will be in the form of an interactive new media installation and, possibly, a series of AR pieces to be featured at the Haida Gwaii Museum when it safely reopens. Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes is therefore an exciting preview of what is yet to come in the Dark Skies project and the movement to decolonize night sky knowledge while preserving the precious and natural darkness of night.

Ernest Swanson, who holds the traditional name Giinowaan, is a Haida artist from Old Massett and is currently living in Vancouver.  As a matrilineal descendent of iconic Haida artist Charles Edenshaw and a grandson of the late Rufus Moody, Swanson has continued his family legacy by developing his creative practice in wood, silver, gold, and argillite. Having worked with artists such as Jim McGuire, Christian White, and Chief 7idansuu James Hart, Swanson is deeply versed in traditional Haida art, and this shines through in his first AR piece. In Chief Supernatural Being with the Big Eyes, Swanson has brilliantly translated his traditional carving practice into a three-dimensional and interactive realm while expanding his repertoire to include the various animated effects of lighting and textured forms. This boundary-pushing work gives us a tantalizing glimpse of how AR technology is being taken up by a new generation of Haida artists.

1 John R. Swanton, Haida Myths and Texts –Skidegate Dialect (Washington: G.P.O., 1905), 36-43.

2 Norman Newton, “Wilderness No Wilderness,” Canadian Literature no. 63 (February 1975): 18–34.

3 Fabio Falchi, Pierantonio Cinzano, Dan Duriscoe, Christopher Kyba, Christopher Elvidge, Kimberly Baugh, Boris Portnov, Nataliya Rybnikova, Riccardo Furgoni, “World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” Science Advances 2, no. 6 (2016): 1–2.

Publication Information

AR Installation, MNP Tower – Oxford Place, Vancouver Mural Festival