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.