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Using Art to Explore Indigenous Rights, Activism and Environment

Sprawling UBC exhibition is powerful, diverse and compelling.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Jan

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

“A sharing economy loses out to a taking economy because, when the takers have done their thing, there is not much left to share.” — George Manuel, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality

This quote accompanies an image of Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw men posing around three enormous feast masks in a new exhibition called Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery.

The work in Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always runs the gamut from installation to sculpture, and includes painting, drawing, film, animation and audio pieces from artists Marianne Nicolson (Dzawada̱’enux̱w) and Althea Thauberger (Canadian), among others. The work — some of it created last summer when professional artists and project leaders collaborated with community artists from Kingcome Inlet — documents the struggles for Indigenous land and water rights that have taken place for more than 100 years.

The life-size photo of the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw men, taken in 1926, is striking for many reasons. First, the feast masks themselves — enormous and beautiful — and second the men around them, also beautiful. A few are smiling, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Others look uncertain. Small details leap out: a peaked cap, a straw boater pushed back, and a traditional blanket decorated with pearl buttons pulled tight across one man’s chest. But the quality that is clearest is togetherness. This is a community, united and strong.

The exhibition’s opening night reception, which featured singing and drumming, traditional greetings and acknowledgments from the curators and artists, shared that sense of community. The gallery was packed and people were excited, high on being together. It was fun, thrilling even, but probably not the best way to look at art. For that you need time, space and some measure of quiet.

I returned to the Belkin the following week and slipped in with a group of university students who were listening to artists and project leaders Nicolson and Thauberger talk about the work. After the students wandered back to class, I chatted with Nicolson about the exhibition’s genesis and how it evolved alongside a recent lawsuit by the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation against the federal government over fish farm licences.

Nicolson explained that her cousin, Lindsey Willie, alerted her to the lawsuit. Willie had been making a documentary about Indigenous protests over fish farms, and stills from the project are arranged in a rough timeline that flows across the gallery wall in a work entitled A'ax̱sila (to take care of).

Part of the intent was to create a project with the Kingcome community, collaborating with younger artists. Over the summer the group used different methods, including film, weaving, song and animation to make visible the threat posed to land and water. The resulting work documents the effects of extractive resource practices like clear-cut logging and open-pen salmon farms, and also speaks to the ongoing struggle for Indigenous jurisdiction.

Nicolson said she saw an opportunity to combine art and activism and better explain the complexities of the situation. And there is a personal connection; Nicolson is based in Kingcome Inlet, close to the Broughton Archipelago, the site of the contested fish farms.

From Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always, 2018.  Photo: Marianne Nicolson.

Looking at what isn’t visible

In such an eclectic and varied collection — other artists included Siku Allooloo (Inuk/Haitian Taíno), Scott Benesiinaabandan (Anishinaabe), Darryl Dawson (Dzawada̱'enux̱w), Jaymyn La Vallee (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Kwikwasut'inuxw and ‘Namgis), Diane Roberts (Afro-Indigenous Caribbean, British, Canadian), Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), Juliana Speier (Dzawada̱'enux̱w, German and Scottish), Nabidu Taylor (Musgamakw, Dzawada̱'enux̱w), Kamala Todd (Métis-Cree), William Wasden Jr.( Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw), Tania Willard (Secwépemc) and Lindsey Willie (Dzawada̱’enux̱w) — there is a tendency to look for a quality that threads its way through the different work.

Nicolson explains that part of the exhibition’s ethos was to look at what isn’t visible in terms of the environmental impact of the farms. Unlike clear-cut logging, the environmental devastation wrought by salmon farming is largely unseen, hidden underneath the water, she said.

Water, be it a river, an ocean, or a glacier, connects many of the works on display.

Kamala Todd’s video Known and Unknown Trails from Digging Up the Last Spike, 2018, documents her journey by boat up the Kingcome Inlet (the only way to access the remote area). Scott Benesiinaabandan’s installation Under deep water: Ma’iingan bites my shoulder and we travel home, assembles a wolf pelt atop a riverbed of different coloured ribbons spilling out of a suitcase.

10_Slikati Missoula-Photographers-2017-25133511-copy.jpg
Marianne Nicolson, La'am 'lawisuxw Yaxuxsan's 'Nalax -Then the Deluge of Our World Came, 2017, acrylic, mother of pearl, and brass on wood, 152.4 x 487.7 cm. Photo: Slikati Photo + Video

Nicolson’s large-scale painting La'am 'lawisuxw Yaxuxsan's 'Nalax - Then the Deluge of Our World Came depicts a catastrophic flood. The work contains images showing how her ancestors managed to survive, lashing canoes to the mountaintops with a cedar rope and surviving on stored food supplies until the water subsided. The image combines oral history and contemporary events, bringing together the spectre of global warming with some aspect of hope based on attachment to the land, ancestral knowledge and a commitment to working together.

If water is an informing element, so is family, in its most joyous and collective sense. It’s there in the film of a young boy dancing and drumming, his little yips winging their way across the gallery. It’s clear in the declamatory statements, read aloud by Nicolson and her family, each playing a role in the video installation that gives the show its title.

It’s a way of actively reclaiming what was long been taken away.

Power spilling out

Another impetus for the show came from the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission of 1914 set up to redraw reserve boundaries in British Columbia. In a meeting at Alert Bay, commissioners met with Johnny Scow (Kwikwasuti'nuxw), Copper Johnson (Ha'xwa'mis), Dick Webber and Dick Hawkins (Dzawada̱'enux̱w) and Alec Morgan (Gwawa'enuxw), as well as the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw Chiefs, to determine the details of the land base belonging to the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw group of nations.

The feast masks that anchor the show are central to this story, as the Kwakwaka'wakw people were still celebrating potlatch long after the Canadian government banned the practice. Due to its remote and hard to access location, the village of Gwa’yi — also known as Kingcome — became a centre for maintaining this tradition.

As Nicolson recounts in her introduction to the exhibition, even when their lands were being taken away by the commission her great-uncles actively practised potlatching, practically under the nose of then-Indian Agent William Halliday. She describes how the Scow Brothers bought cows from Halliday’s brother, feasted and potlatched, and then documented the event in pictographs in 1921. Almost 100 years later the images of traditional coppers — large, shield shaped symbols — and cows painted on Petley Point (near Gwa'yi village) are still vivid and bright. The pictographs are documented in Nicolson’s film installation, as well as her own large pictograph Cliff Painting, created 100 meters away from the original rock paintings overlooking Kingcome Inlet.

Hexsa'a̱m: To Be Here Always is part of a larger initiative titled Mirrored In Stone commissioned by Cineworks and the Belkin Gallery in partnership with the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation. One of the project’s intentions was to challenge the idea that First Nations art and culture was only heritage-based and somehow removed from the contemporary art world.

But as Nicolson’s artist statement makes clear, these kinds of delineations needed to be obliterated. “We must not seek to erase the influence of globalizing Western culture, but master its forces selectively, as part of a wider Canadian and global community, for the health of the land and the cultures it supports,” she writes.

Installation view, Hexsa’am: To Be Here Always at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (January 11-April 7, 2019). Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

Although there are signs everywhere in the gallery stating: “Please do not touch!”, it’s hard to quell the impulse to reach out and trace the lines that make out pictographic images of otters, robins and, most poignantly, the eulachon, the small fish at the centre of the fight over the fish farms.

While the salmon farms are only the latest imposition on the traditional territories of First Nations people, the destruction of the land has been ongoing for more than a century. But in spite of the struggle at its core, the show is not dispiriting. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The thing that struck me about the assembled work was the power spilling out, potent and strong — family, joy and beauty, and hilarious little kids dancing, along with a renewed desire for change.

If humans have any hope of sticking around, we need to learn (relearn) a deep and fundamental respect for the land and water. Which returns me to George Manuel, writing in 1974 about the seismic shift in consciousness necessary for all people to live and share together: “The land from which our culture springs is like the water and the air, one and indivisible.”

There is great strength in togetherness.

Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always runs until April 7, 2019 at The Belkin Gallery.  [Tyee]

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