Urban Thunderbirds / Ravens in a Material World began not with an opening or private view, but with a celebration. Over the course of a bright fall afternoon on the west coast of Canada—in Coast Salish territory—regional chiefs, singers, drummers, and dancers welcomed visitors to the latest exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. As co-curators and participants, Coast Salish artist lessLIE (Leslie Robert Sam) and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook each partnered with another artist from their respective communities. The four-person exhibition looks at indigenous identity, cultural re-appropriation, and cross currents of traditional and contemporary, sacred and public. lessLIE—his artist name was chosen to call out colonial deceptions—and Cook reflect on the project as an indexical point within their experience as Northwest Coast First Nations artists in a very material art world.
Rande Cook If I were to dissect my part of the show, it’s starting from a foundation of spirit as First Nations people. We’re connected to the earth, we’re connected to all the elements. Then we talk about colonialism and Catholicism and all these different issues of a certain period, the Canadian government, the banning of our potlatches, on and on. Our people were forced to change and adapt, and we’re still adapting. Now we’re just recognizing where things went sideways and saying wait a second, let’s pull things back on track for ourselves, lead the way for the next generations, pave a better road than the one our parents and grandparents had to deal with. We’re the only people in the world under an “Indian Act.” That says a lot right there. Our own government doesn’t recognize us as Canadian citizens. It’s crazy! We should have, you know, reversed that in some way by now.
Working on the show was really good. In a lot of ways, therapeutic. It helped me look at things I’d never really looked at before. I’m a lot more political now than I’ve ever been, because of the issues that are at stake today in our area. As an artist, you can’t just create an artwork, it has to come from somewhere. And if it comes from somewhere, if it comes from this land, what does this land mean to you? If it’s that important—it’s where you’re reflecting origin stories, songs, art—then if that land is at risk, it’s your obligation to protect it. You become political artists without even intending to, because you’re making a statement for the world to see.
And showing with Francis [Dick] was great. I’d seen a couple of paintings she was working on and I wanted to exhibit with her just based on those. She’s been working in the art world for years, and she’s had her struggles and knows the market, and I thought it would be a good opportunity for her to express herself. Her painting just really seemed to fit.
lessLIE I really admire your productivity, Rande, and your daring to do some different things. And to work with Dylan [Thomas]—at first he intimidated me with his talent, but I didn’t want that to get in the way of my admiration for his work in the curatorial process, and in selecting him. I think you make an interesting point about spirituality as a reference for the work. I find that really intriguing and it’s something I try to instill in my own work as well. In contrast to that, too, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is infuse the work with an intellectual edge. That was something I wish we could have reflected on a bit more when we were having our curatorial meetings—there’s a stereotype of Northwest Coast artists as being inarticulate and simpleminded and only spiritual, and I’ve tried to call that stereotype into question.
I’d like to challenge people’s notions of Northwest Coast art, to deconstruct the dichotomy between traditional and contemporary, to be true to my cultural reality, my identity, to not really cater to a market. It’s about technical proficiency and reciting an oral tradition, and that’s all that matters. To me, the art doesn’t really serve our culture if it’s something that is just technically proficient and reciting an oral tradition, but is being sold outside of our communities.
p(a). RC I completely agree with lessLIE. I made a choice in my career as a carver, learning from traditional carvers, not to sell anything sacred that’s used in ceremonies. I’ve made some really strong public statements about that that have affected a lot of our community artists. What is the point of replicating masks that you see in museums for the market, when those masks were sacred and were used in ceremonies and were taken away from us? So I’ve made a commitment in my career not to do that. I think it was the most challenging thing I’ve had to do because I had to rewrite my life as an artist, rewrite what a First Nations Kwakwaka’wakw artist is. The world views Kwakwaka’wakw art as these big, spiritual masks that are sold in galleries and if you’re not doing that, then what are you going to be doing?
I started moving into something very contemporary, creating my own styles and using more colors. The work is a statement that you can still survive and be an artist, maintain balance and integrity. Pushing my style in the big paintings is about that. It’s me showing people from our community that you can still be a First Nations artist while drawing both from themes and stories and from whatever your own personal identity is, however you perceive the world. I’ll carve ceremonial pieces, but I’ll carve them traditionally, the way our old people did. They only carved them at night when nobody was around because they were putting a lot of spirit into it. Then the minute it was done they wrapped it and gifted it to the person it was meant for—again when nobody else was around, so nobody saw it. It’s wasn’t seen at all until it was danced and after the dance was over, it was wrapped and put away. A mask could be put away for another forty years before it was danced again. There’s a lot of strong spirit and identity within a piece like that, and I want to hang on to that. There are certain things for ceremonial purposes, things that shouldn’t be seen outside of certain societies. And these are secret societies that we’re maintaining today that the world doesn’t need to know about. It’s none of their business.
Kyra Kordoski So that’s off the record then?
RC (laughter) No, it’s fine. I mean it’s good for the world to know that some things need to be sacred. We need to keep that. But you can still express yourself. I always relate it to music, or anything—you want to keep changing your style, album to album.
p(q). KK How does the ceremonial side of your practice impact your more contemporary work?
RC I think it’s the spirit that grounds me. Coming into the show, it’s creating from that spirit of knowing who you are. Strip away everything, all the materialism in the world, who are we? If you’re deeply rooted within your history, and your culture, that is your identity, so whatever it is you create as an artist, is going to be that. Whether you create within sacred ceremonies, or for public view, there’s still that spirit within it. For me it’s just about style now.
lessLIE It’s very similar in Coast Salish culture. We would never recreate a sxwayxwey mask, or rattles, or drums, or anything that we use in our traditional spirituality, but there’s a perpetuation of some aspects or elements of that through out contemporary art practice as Coast Salish artists—the spirit of that informs the contemporary works that we’ve created for this exhibition.
KK It’s a ubiquitous challenge for artists, but how do you personally negotiate balancing spiritual, intellectual work with a commercial imperative?
RC For me it’s something I carry with me all the time in everything I do. There’s this big question, what is spirit today? A lot of the time, especially in Western cultures, people have lost it and are trying to find it, desperately. Aboriginal cultures are still embracing it. That is the biggest fear I have for us as aboriginals? Losing it, because of the Western influence. There are commercial First Nations artists that create just for the market, just for financial value, not knowing what it is they’re creating, not doing the work behind the pieces that they’re selling because it’s just for money. That for me is a loss of spirit. And I challenge my own people from my area that do that. I say, find something that will ground you as an artist. Maybe figure out why you’re taking that direction when you should be finding out—if you’re going to carve something—what is the purpose of it, what is origin of it, what was it used for? And then give it back to the ceremony so it can be danced and celebrated. That is the wealth within it, not the wealth of money.
There’s no spirit in business. Business is business. That’s the underlying thing. So when you’re in an open market, lessLIE and I probably both agree, dealing with galleries, having a gallery dictating what your work should look like because it’s a business to them… It’s not about you as an artist, it’s not about the work you create. They’re critiquing it purely because of a financial value, and that to me takes everything right out of it as an artist. It’s with opportunities like this, working with the AGGV, that you get to express more, which is liberating. We’ve been given an opportunity to express a lot of issues that you can’t talk about in a commercial market.
lessLIE I’ve gone through different phases in my career. At the beginning it was a lot more intellectual and political, and then after a bit of time you can become softened by success, succumb to gaining an income from your work. I’ve gone through that stage of being complacent and self-satisfied, just creating work for the commercial market. And then indulging in addictions, and then wondering, where is this taking me in my life? This exhibition has re-infused the vision in my work, and that passion for it. At the beginning of my career I was looking at all the commercial galleries and I felt like that was the pinnacle of being a contemporary West Coast First Nations artist. Then you end up dealing with some of them for a while, and it is all about capitalism and business. I’ve gone through that frustration too, where it just boils down to straightforward transactions. It’s totally impersonal in the sense that they’re looking for a commodity to buy and then resell without much regard for the culture or the artist. I feel like this exhibition empowers me in that sense.
KK Symbolism and complex references are integral to your works.
lessLIE When I was in the Transporters exhibition here in 2007, one of the artists from the area approached me and asked my why I used so many big words in my artist statement. He said, “why can’t you take your work and bring it to a level where a six-year-old would be able to understand it?” I could partially appreciate that but at the same time I don’t really want to simplify my work just so that everyone will understand it. Even in this exhibition, with the Starbucks piece, you have to have some kind of understanding about the symbolism behind it. With esoteric symbolism, I just think that well, if I know it, there’s an audience out there that will know it as well. It’s sort of a difficult middle ground when I’m creating work—I want to speak to a broad audience but at the same time I also don’t want to really dumb things down.
It’s tough, because accessibility is something I value. Louie Gong was talking about the pricing of his work—he creates these Coast Salish designs on Vans shoes—he was talking about making his work accessible to more people versus having something more expensive. And that’s something that I really appreciate. I think art should be accessible, it shouldn’t be something that’s exclusively for people who are wealthy and can afford it.
With this exhibition I reflected for a long time about the significance of the works: what was I referencing, how would it perpetuate my culture, reflect my culture, and not just be some embarrassing work of art that would be classified as naive… One of my references is Picasso. When he was influenced by African masks, he said that he didn’t have to know anything about the culture from which those masks came in order to appreciate them, he just had to be able to appreciate them on a formal level. I’m not as great as Picasso, but I still disagree with that. I think that if a person is drawing influence from something they should have some understanding of it.
KK Right, and there’s responsibility as a viewer, too, to do the work and educate yourself, especially when dealing with artwork from a different culture. Maybe we could wrap up with a discussion about some of your own works in this show?
lessLIE The first three works when you walk in I really felt were taking risks, and I’m more attached to those works. With gRAIN, people might not know immediately what it is upon approaching it, but if people know what concrete poetry is they can view that work that way. It’s partially visual punning, which exists in Northwest Coast art, and you find it a lot in contemporary North American visual culture as well, words within words. The words “grain” and “rain” are so inextricably intertwined, how water feeds the grain of wood. It’s all completely from the landscape. It’s a reflection as a concrete poem on Coast Salish landscape, and it references the geometric elements of Coast Salish design. The Starbucks piece: I didn’t know where to draw the line as far as trademarks and copyrights, but I just wanted to go with it and take the risk, see what the outcome was. That piece has to do with natural resources, salmon being a resource, and the crown having political symbolism. Starbucks wouldn’t exist without Coast Salish territory. It’s important to point that out.
RC The show’s topic is really broad—taking issues from today and creating for today. As Native artists we draw from strong origin stories and symbols within that, whether it’s thunderbirds, whales, animals…but I joke sometimes that if I have to do another whale I’m going to shoot myself—there’s more to my artistic ability than drawing a whale just because that’s what commercial galleries want and that’s what sells. But when I started thinking about all of it, one of my favorite stories is the Raven, how the Raven released the light to the world. I just look at it as such a strong metaphor that connects to so many different religions. But talking about it today, I joke that people are in the business of healing now. Deepak and all that. Buy a book and invest in it and you can be cured in 30 days and create a following. It’s like, pick your religion these days, pick your faith. Western society is so lost and searching for spirituality, it’s so marketable now.
For us as First Nations, it’s not like that. It never really made sense to me. Christianity is still strong in our areas, but it doesn’t register for me. I don’t get it. I just can’t connect to another part of the world when I’m from here, and we have our stories that connect back to these areas that we can live in and bathe in, where our ancestors first came from. So wearing one of my masks in the Vatican was probably one of the biggest statements of my life because of what residential schools did to our people. To be able to stand in the center of Catholicism for myself, to get that feeling for myself of saying, “We’re still here.” And asking, what can I do personally to keep moving forward, to help my people?
And then when I came back from Italy I went straight to New York, and I thought I’d do the same thing there but have fun with it, look at commercialism as a First Nations artist. So that mask was a Louis Vuitton mask, and I did the LV symbols and I wore it in Times Square. Challenging different views, finding balance—for me, everything in the show connected around that.
Ravens in a Material World is on view through January 12. For more information see the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.