Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World
by Janet Rogers
On the day before Bernice A. King, daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., delivers the keynote speech to thousands of residential school survivors and their supporters at the Walk for Reconciliation event in Vancouver, British Columbia, a smaller but no less enthusiastic audience gathers at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the opening of the Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World exhibition in Victoria, British Columbia.
Both events are landmarks unto themselves, lending strength to the glacially slow shift in western consciousness and validation of indigenous realities. Co-curated by two of the featured artists, Coast Salish lessLIE Sam and Kwakwakwak Rande Cook, the exhibition is a visual truth-telling of the dual cultural existence of a “modern-day, self-proclaimed” native artist and the clumsy but more often time clever ways in which their art helps them navigate both traditional responsibility and contemporary tradition. The results are beautiful, thoughtful, touching and funny.
Firstly, one must acknowledge the territory. And by that, I mean the stolen, renamed, illegally occupied land on which a western culture has sprung from. So it was important to have Songhees band council member John Rice state in his opening address, before anything else, that we were all gathered on traditional Lekwungen land of his people. The exhibition itself was divided into territories. One room hosting the inspired works of lessLIE Sam and Dylan Thomas, both Coast Salish artists and a second room dedicated to the modern works of two Kwakwakwak artists, Rande Cook and Fran Dick, all 4 artists representing two of the three island nations, with the omission of the Nuu-cha-nulth nation. So why this exhibition and why now?
It seems the recent activism sparked across the nation, touching indigenous peoples globally under the moniker Idle No More, has also awakened the native artist. The collection of works could be viewed as a challenging poke on the shoulder to their traditions, as if to say “I have served you, now what are you willing to do for me?” These artists have only each other as support and guides through this unchartered territory. As lessLIE quotes Lawrence Paul Yuxwelupten, another Coast Salish artist in his exhibition statement, “Traditional Northwest Coast art within a commercial gallery context is a cultural dead-end since such art only serves as trophies of colonizers and their decedents and it does not serve the culture it is intended for.” Dylan Thomas makes a point about dualities within the profession in his statement, “When one makes a living selling art, it can be easy to become more focused on the business aspect of the art than on the creative, spiritual aspect.” And to that point, not a price tag or red dot was in sight throughout the gallery.
Both Rande Cook and Fran Dick were raised with the traditions of their culture, including artistic practices of wood carving and painting. Fran Dick’s portrait paintings of people in her life were dressed both in traditional regalia and street clothes; all were captured with a caring brush meant to honour the people. Fran breaks away from the limiting traditional pallet of red and black and white to immortalize family members in tones reflective of graphic novel greys with bold accents used discriminatingly. Each portrait was accompanied by text explaining whom her subject is and why she chose to paint them. She also added audio suited to each painting. For example; the portrait of her younger brother Jesse, who in 1985 took his life at the age of 20, is accompanied by an excerpt of an audio interview Fran conducted with him. We hear Jesse speak admiringly of his Grandmother who told him “nothing but good should come from inside.” In heartbreaking and meaningful ways, this artist has challenged herself by bringing her soulful memories to canvass and sharing a brave artistic act in the exhibition.
When I spoke to Rande Cook about what he felt was an important key message within the exhibition, he commented on the transformative elements of all the work, noting that western culture has lost their spirituality and are now trying to find it through consumerism. “You can’t find spirituality in Nike running shoes or Starbucks coffee,” he explains, “Starbucks built their business on Coast Salish land (Seattle) and they don’t care.” The relationship between Indigenous peoples/lands and corporate branding is evident within the show; the Starbucks logo, as an example, is ingested and regurgitated at least twice. It’s as if the artists are making a parody of everything and throwing it back in the faces of the audience, saying “So what are you going to do about it?”
The audience members I spoke to were taken by the “Vatican” pieces by Rande Cook. In this instance, the artist becomes the art. Rande dons a northwest coast portrait mask he carved and photos are taken of him in tourist hotspots such as New York City’s Time Square and the Financial District where the recent “Occupy” movement was birthed. Rande recalls the time he and an artist colleague, Luke Marsden, were taking a jewelry course in Tuscany Italy and they took a side trip to Rome. There they placed the carved masks on their faces to have their pictures taken inside the Vatican; he describes this as “the most craziest, important feeling of my career yet.” He took the fear inside him that was related to religious power and flipped it in that moment and, in this exhibit, is challenging other sorts of power. This is another great example of the artist challenging, not only his cultural traditions, but his personal political loyalties.
Throughout the run of the show, public programmer Tania Meir has curated great panels, DJ shows featuring Skookum Sound System, and an exhibition catalogue launch where I will share the following poem:
these are not airport gifts
or museum objects
these are dreams
these are spirit ideas
plucked from thin air
with colour and thought and breath
these are reclamations
stuck to it with humour
this is visual medicine
this is good food
these marks are made for you
What do you call a school
that teaches open and honest
interpretation sat inside galleries
no retail trade
have a good look
do you see yourself
inside the lines
do you hear your ancestors
speaking to you
what are they saying
It took many collected minutes
rather than one fell swoop
when “tradition” gradually opened
up its definition and the painters
gingerly followed suit.
The moment cannot be measured
when artists began to break
the molds to tell the public
they are different than what’s been told.
This mis-learned history,
they loop us through designs
like psychedelics in duplicates
new traditions fast transforming
bridges and tunnels
Freudian fantasies put in print
as this is the (colonizer’s) mark
The road from past to present
is not long and linear
it circles back to find the finish
where it begins again travelling
in reverse to find the new next thing.
Patience, acceptance, encouragements
practice, elastic, fantastic,
What am I looking at?
All these loose-lipped words
floating like orphaned language
ungrounded from meaning
serpents eating their tails
swallowing definitions until
like the totems left in natural habitat
all but disappear to reappear as thick
forest muck on boot bottoms
tracked through sterile gallery floors
interpreted as disrespect
Stories and trade talks
A song and A dance
Smile for the camera
the photographer still
deals in souls.
Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World is at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from September 21st 2013- January 12th 2014 with public programs throughout the run of the show. Visit aggv.ca for details.
Janet Rogers is a Mohawk/Tuscarora poet and radio host. She is the current poet laureate of Victoria, British Columbia (on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen people). Janet is a regular contributor with BC Musician Magazine, Indian Country Today News Media, The Two Row Times and First Nations Drum News.