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  • Form as meaning(s)

    Aaren Madden

    Four First Nations curators bring new perspectives to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s Pacific Northwest prints collection.


    BACK IN THE 1980, Lou-ann Neel was a teenager working at Arts of the Raven Gallery and Open Pacific Graphics (later Pacific Editions Ltd.), important places in the flourishing First Nations art scene. She vividly remembers the days when artists would come in to sign their prints, created in editions of 100. “The excitement probably wore off after the first 25 or so were signed,” she allows with humour, but she cherished the opportunity to talk with the artists about their work and their ideas. “Those moments stayed with me and continue to inspire me to do my best as an artist, and to always remember the histories of our people, which is where the inspiration for our work comes from.”

    A print that stood out for her then—and now—is “Salmon” by Henry Hunt (1923-1985). Created in 1972, she saw it every day at Arts of the Raven. “To me,” she shares, “it represented an important benchmark in time on several levels: first, the salmon is probably one of the most important food sources amongst coastal people, so this representation of a salmon speaks to how much we value salmon—enough to immortalize it in print form. Second, the colours used are such classic ‘old-style’ Southern Kwagiulth colours, which I’ve always appreciated and continue to use in my own works today,” says the accomplished Kwakwaka’wakw artist.

    “Salmon” is the first work in Neel’s section of the exhibition Form as Meaning: First Nations Prints from the Pacific Northwest. Along with Marcia Crosby, lessLIE and Alana Sayers, Neel has selected works from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria that generate meaning on a number of levels. The curators show how the prints provide cultural context while showing the vitality, variety, influence and innovation amongst artists working with traditional forms.



    The curators (l-r): Marcia Crosby (and grandson), Nicole Stanbridge (AGGV), Michelle Jacques (AGGV), Lou-ann Neel, lessLIE (and daughter), and Alana Sayers. 


    A common thread is a challenge to any notion of statis, literally or figuratively. “Salmon” incorporates traditional ovoids and u-forms, in, as Neel notes, traditional black, brick-red and deep green. However, its vigorous rendering frees it from the buff-coloured page.

    Neel’s selections proceed from “Salmon” chronologically, in order to show how early works laid a path for younger artists to follow and further innovate from. Mark Henderson’s work, for example, she included due to its use of the entire picture plane to create a larger landscape. “It is something that was very groundbreaking in Northwest Coast design at the time,” she explains, as was his expansion of the traditional palette. Worlds of possibility were opened up for other artists to either explore traditional idioms or incorporate wide-ranging influences: Neel points out how Roy Henry Vickers’ “Goolka” fills the surface with narrative while invoking Hokusai’s print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

    Neel’s selections conclude with works by Susan Point and lessLIE, artists that employ the trigons, circles and crescent shapes indicative of their Coast Salish culture. Hanging side by side, they show the former influenced the latter. However, as the exhibition segues into lessLIE’s selections as a co-curator, his work—and his curatorial approach—offers a compelling conceptual element. lessLIE is a Coast Salish artist working in two dimensional forms—prints and original paintings. He holds a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Victoria. While he focuses on Coast Salish works that he feels he can speak to culturally and those from other nations that influenced his practice, he offers the concept of motif as language. “They [design motifs] are actual cultural beliefs to live by,” his curatorial statement reads.



    “Spinning Whorl(d)” by lessLIE


    lessLIE’s intention is to continually show that, in image and in language, there is always more than meets the eye. “Spinning Whorl(d),” a collaboration with Nlaka’pamux artist Oliva Mailhot, is an example. The title itself is a play on language and its possibilities, suggesting meanings rife within if we care to find them in word or mark. Referencing the spindle whorl as an important item of Coast Salish culture and a point of departure for many print designs, they create the unlikely phenomenon of a kinetic, interactive work of two-dimensional art. In fact, even the artist finds unexpected layers: “I was intending it to be a Coast Salish Op Art print evoking a spinning spindle whorl. Yet when I received the print from Eric Bourquin of Seacoast Screen Printing, I was surprised to see that not only does it evoke spinning, but also depth and dimension, the convex form of spindle whorls, the tides of the Salish Sea, and a mediation between two-dimensional Salish graphic art, and carved art,” says lessLIE.

    Alana Sayers continues the conflation of language and visual art by including her own poetry among her selections. “Like the art, [the poems] have layers of tradition, culture, knowledge, and story,” she says. “I was stitched together in a kaleidoscope of shape and colour,” read her words, floating on the wall overhead, as Art Thompson’s “House of the Wolves” begins a startling parade of Nuu-Chah-Nulth artists’ works. Being from that First Nation, says Sayers, “it was important that all of my prints were from Nuu-Chah-Nulth [artists] so that I could best talk about what ‘form as meaning’ means to me in a Nuu-Chah-Nulth context.”



    "House of the Wolves" by Art Thompson


    Sayers is a PhD student in English Literature at UVic, and that department’s first Indigenous support officer and teaching assistant in Indigenous literature. Part of her approach is to challenge assumptions about art and academia, and about what Pacific Northwest First Nations art “is and isn’t.” To do so, she hung work from her own collection by her uncle Rodney Sayers among works by Art Thompson and Joe David. “Tiichin, Ride the Lightning” and “Hupacasath” show a playful, contemporary pop sensibility, while their proximity to the other artists’ works connect them to larger traditions.

    Marcia Crosby, a Tsimshian-Haida writer, art historian and educator, uses connection in another way for her approach. She considers cross-cultural influence and exchange among First Nations historically and currently, including the importance of individual artists, groups, institutions, and the school at ’Ksan, where prominent First Nations artists like Robert Davidson and Doug Cranmer taught and influenced several others. The works she has chosen highlight variety and innovation in technique and approach by a range of different First Nations. Form relates to meaning in broad terms of artistic development that links “deeper histories” to “possible futures.”

    The idea of “possible futures” for Pacific Northwest Coast prints is an easy and exciting one to take away from this exhibition because of the unique perspectives of each curator. The curatorial staff at the AGGV came up with the theme, then invited the guest curators to gather for a working session to share thoughts on the collection and specific works within. After that, each worked independently, exploring the importance of cultural connection, the potentials of language and juxtaposition, and the insights revealed through chronology and personal experience. Form creates meaning in all of these contexts.

    It’s a valuable opportunity for visitors to see a collection through this particular set of eyes. As lessLIE articulates, “it was gracious and vital of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to hire indigenous artists to co-curate this exhibition. First Nations people need to represent First Nations art. Each co-curator added a unique approach to selecting works based on differing backgrounds.” Visitors take away a more profound contextualization of Henry Hunt’s “Salmon” and all that followed. Possibilities for the art form, its evolution, and exhibition are exciting to contemplate. “I believe this [exhibition] will add to a growing discussion around Aboriginal curatorial practice,” Neel concludes.

    Form as Meaning: First Nations Prints from the Pacific Northwest continues until June 17 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. 1040 Moss St, 250-384-4171. Check aggv.ca for drop-in tours and other related events.

    Much like Lou-ann Neel, Aaren Madden also cherished the special days when she worked at Alcheringa Gallery, when artists would come in with a brand-new print to show and discuss.

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