One of the many books I picked up at MacLeod’s last week was the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 1967 Arts of the Raven catalogue, edited by the exhibition’s curator, Doris Shadbolt. This was a landmark exhibition, notable for Bill Holm’s formal analysis of Northwest Coast motifs, but also Shadbolt’s contention that art made by First Nations artists today be considered contemporary art – “high art, not ethnology.”
Although aware of Shadbolt’s proposition, I was not aware of her omissions. Shadbolt writes: “…the main distinction made is between the austere and intellectual elegance of the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian, and the flamboyant histrionic style of the Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka’wakw]. For stylistic reasons, neither the Nootka [Nuuchaanulth] nor Coast Salish are represented, nor is prehistoric stone art included.”
What does Shadbolt mean by “stylistic reasons”? That which Holm had no interest in classifying, or that which she did not like?
In January of this year, the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, under the guest curation of Charlotte Townsend-Gault, took a step towards addressing Shadbolt’s omission with Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ki-Ke-In, a show that featured numerous thliitsapilthim (portable curtain paintings of various sizes, each telling of the “episodes and exploits from family histories, conflicts, captures and alliances”), as well as drawings, photographs and other contextual materials.
My first impressions upon viewing the show concerned the scale of these thliitsapilthim, one of which measured 3-by-16 metres, making them the biggest paintings in the world. As for the painting, I agree with Shadbolt: though many of these works include coastal motifs, the works are neither elegant nor flamboyant but crudely drawn, largely figurative, with evidence of modern situations. This is not to say that Shadbolt was right to omit the work, only that its inclusion would have complicated the exhibition, making it not so neat and compact, which, to my mind, is never a reason to not do something.
Little more than a month after the Belkin opening, artist Phillip McCrum approached Reid Shier and I and asked if we might show some photos he took during his time in Belfast, Northern Ireland at a multi-media installation we were curating for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, called the Candahar Bar. Because the bar was built around a functioning Northern Irish pub (a project of Derry-based artist Theo Sims, called The Candahar), we consented.
While I have been to Belfast and seen the house murals there, it was not until McCrum’s images began looping across the screen that I was reminded of the murals in Ki-Ke-In’s show, less for content than style. Of that style, I had a further thought: that maybe these thliitsapilthim owe as much to residential school art classes than what was, like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, handed down by elders.