Haida artist, Gwaai Edenshaw, blushes when he talks of his submissions in the First Nations erotic art exhibit opening this month at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver.
His head drops, his mouth shares a sly smile and breaks into a jovial laugh that escapes through the veil of a thinly disguised sexual innuendo regarding the erotic First Nations art he will proudly share to the public.
And why shouldn't he get excited? It's not everyday that First Nations artisans from Canada's Northwest Coast get to express such an intimate and important portrait of their lives.
It's not commonplace for First Nations people to have a venue in which to share their sexually and sensually-charged art with the mainstream public through exhibition.
But the RezErect: Native Erotica exhibit, which opens Sept. 25th, erodes stereotypes, crumbles taboos and is giving agency to 27 First Nations artists to explore, examine and expose the healthy aspects of Aboriginal sexuality -- a sexuality that Edenshaw and fellow Haida/Nisga'a artist and exhibit curator, Kwiaahwah Jones, says has always been a facet of First Nations history and culture.
Sensuality comes naturally
Edenshaw says for much of his art, "The message is that there is already sensuality in the form line and you don't need fat cocks or boobs or anything like that," he says with a laugh.
Edenshaw, who trained under Bill Reid, has submitted five works of art to the show.
His works touch on the issues of voyeurism, nudity, group sex and sexual positions through paintings, installations, pieces carved out of fishing floats and various other mixed media.
The idea to execute a First Nations exhibition on erotic art was a three-year collective effort between Jones and Edenshaw with input from their friends, explains Jones.
"Our culture on the Northwest Coast is so holistic," she said. "We don't categorize things like they do traditionally in the western world and that perspective comes out pretty clear in exploring erotica on the Northwest Coast."
Sex that 'isn't all about hurt'
The residual affects of residential school and its negative effect on First Nations sexuality was "a huge incentive to do the show," said Jones, adding that it is fitting that the erotica show will open in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Conference that took place in Vancouver last week.
"It's amazing to see the interest grow...among not just non-Native but Native people too," Jones said of the upcoming show.
However, she admits that she was somewhat leery of the potential negative backlash the show could entice for its blatantly sexual vibe.
"That's the scariest part," she said. "But at the same time, it needs to be done."
"Most of the feedback has all been positive," added Edenshaw, even from the community's elders.
"They think it's about time to hear it in the streets -- the dialogue [regarding sexuality] that isn't all about hurt," said Edenshaw.
Jones says erotic artworks among First Nations have always been around, though many artists have kept their highly sexually inspired art underground, or under their beds, she said, half-jokingly.
"Talking to the artists, some of them said, 'Oh! I have [erotic artworks made already] here, under my bed or hidden in the box in the corner,'" explained Jones.
Jones and Edenshaw handpicked artists they felt would exemplify the show, some of which who already had private collections of erotica but wanted to create new works for the public.
Edenshaw insists that erotica has been part of First Nations art all along. Why bring it to the forefront now?
"When we hear about Native sexuality and through how it's fed to us through media, it's within this context of dysfunction and it's always sort of a painful story that we hear associated with it and that's our experience," he said. "But it's not the whole of our experience," he added.
"Native people have full sexual lives outside of all that hard stuff. I think it's good to reinforce those messages."