I’m a big fan of classic Northwest Coast art – it’s hard not to be. But there is also a large and highly talented array of indigenous Northwest Coast artists who work in a variety of media and contemporary idioms. One who recently caught my eye is Sitka Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin. You probably recognize the figure in the foreground above: Bill Reid’s iconic “Raven and the First People” (if not from class, then from your 20$ bill), which tells the story of Raven-Travelling in ancient times, finding a clamshell, hearing noises inside, and releasing people and animals into a transforming world.
But wait, what’s that figure in the background, on the other side of the glass window, in the courtyard of the MOA?
That would be Galanin’s sculpture, “Raven and the First Immigrant” – a replica of sorts, deliberately crude and degraded, a homeless doppelgänger.
As Galanin says in his artist’s statement:
I never met the late artist Bill Reid or spoke with him, although his work has met me, spoken to me, and both inspired and influenced my artistic journey.
I outsourced the carving of this piece, “Raven and the First Immigrant,” to a (non-Native) chainsaw artist. The piece was installed here at the Museum of Anthropology 30 years to the day after Reid’s sculpture, “The Raven and the First Men,” was unveiled. Mine is an intentionally imperfect reflection of his iconic piece. Both works depict the Raven, a curious trickster, known for feeding into a desire to interfere or change things—like coaxing men and women into the world. Reid’s Raven is a triumph of technical mastery. My reflection is layered with impurities and distortion through its title, process, concept, context, material, scale, installation, and the space it occupies. It is outside, looking in.
Northwest Coast art today is plagued with conservatism. It is notorious for its demand of technical skill in the crafting of cultural imagery. At what point does “Native art” become less perfect, less ideally “Indian,” less predictable and understood? Sovereign creativity is something we must not abandon as indigenous artists. This is the position from which we navigate the world.
No doubt powerful wherever displayed, the cheeky juxtapostion of the pristine, iconic, institutionally-approved Bill Reid sculpture with Raven’s haggard, rough, outcast and shabby cousin looking in – accusingly? enviously? – is, well, a master-stroke. As a commentary on the colonial, with its multiple reversals of meaning and intent and authorship, it really embodies the playful, sometimes dark spirit of the trickster, if I may say so.
I was also very touched by Galanin’s “S’igeika’awu: Ghost” series of Northwest Coast masks rendered in porcelain. Any archaeologist who has encountered shattered ceramics like these as the uppermost layer in a coastal village midden may have an inkling of recognition, as if a ghost were near. Elsewhere Galanin takes on Edward Curtis. This is powerful stuff and a welcome reminder that the classic Northwest Coast art is but a foundation for a profound artistic future. I know the business of archaeology is the past, and I know the past only exists in the present, but work like this makes us see the future and the shape of a second time of transformation looming.
Neat post. Any plans to do a post about Robert Bringhurst?
Not any time soon – he is an interesting and talented person and I do have a lot of respect for his knowledge and his language skills, but he is also a very polarizing individual with a tenuous link to archaeology. So I hadn’t really thought of him for this venue but maybe one day. There’d probably be a full discussion though!
Those masks are very poignant and provocative. I’ve never seen anything like them before. I get such a sense of dissonance looking at them somehow.
Great pieces. The masks made me think of Brian Jungen’s use of Nike shoes for his masks.
I’ve recently discovered Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ “Haida Manga”. I’ll try to link a site for you to see. Make sure you scroll down to see his “Two Sisters” Piece. Copper leaf on the hood of a Dodge Dynasty and a Chevrolet Geo.
Hi Adam, thanks for the link — I really like MNY’s work, I even used a few of his images at a conference in Lisbon when I got tired of pictures of rocks and straight up formline stuff.
There’s a small page of his comics (under pen name Yaku) here:
And since this is an archaeology blog, it is worth noting MNY’s important contributions to CMT archaeology in the early 1980’s. It is summarised by Morley Eldridge (page 2):
“Then Michael Nicoll, Yahgulaanas, working with the Council of Haida Nations and MacMillan Bloedel in the early 1980s, independantly began to systematically record CMTs on Haida Gwaii (Nicoll 1981). Nicoll introduced traversing and mapping to forestry engineering standards and developed a typology and recording form, and presented his work to the archaeological community.”
Some of his more recent thinking on the subject is found on page 21 at:
Click to access SacredCedar_sm.pdf
A different approach to Galanin’s sculpture on the MOA blog:
Hi VT, thanks for the link.
I guess there is no right answer in fine arts, dammit, but my reading of the piece is much closer to an ironic and tricky manifestation of the colonial gaze than it is about “appropriation”.
More broadly, “Appropriation” is certainly something that is important to consider in Anthropology and Archaeology and other disciplines, but in my experience in the academic world it leads to a kind of good-willed paralysis on the part of academics as they paint themselves into a rhetorical corner far beyond what the “appropriatee” even considers reasonable. And it can ghetto-ize aboriginal art and literature. I guess archaeologists are more results-oriented than some social sciences! The power dynamic can never be overlooked but the need and desire on all sides to actually get things done has to be given some weight too. So I always want to see any instance or discussion of “appropriation” defended on its own merits in its own context and not just via reference to over-arching post-colonialist theories (not saying that’s whats going on at the MOA, just sayin’)
I agree — my understanding of Nicholas Galanin’s piece is that he is not particularly concerned with reproduction or appropriation. He used the strategy of having an “imperfect reflection” made in order to raise questions about the criteria by which we tend to judge Northwest Coast art made today. Can we accept a piece of NWC conceptual art, or do we always look only at the surface, the quality of craftsmanship, the form? He is calling for the freedom to move away from purely aesthetic and formal criteria (the perfect ovoid) to a focus on “cultural concepts” — i.e., the ideas behind the work.
Another twist on this is, the imposter Raven is actually itself a masterpiece of chainsaw art. Seriously, it’s great chainsaw craftmanship.
How would Reid’s sculpture have looked had he carved it only with ground stone tools? Not quite as smooth and glossy I would bet. Further, isn’t it carved from a composite block of wood made of smaller pieces glued together? Reid’s carving is state of the art, just as Galanin’s is: carved with the most efficient tool possible – and by hired labour to boot. Very modern.