Thursday 14 November 2013

Just Doubling as a Loudspeaker Today: Robert Davidson's Art, His Commitment, His Cultural Impact

Guud san glans "Eagle of the Dawn" Robert Davidson, Haida artist and force of nature.
The handsome young fellow pictured above is Robert Davidson, renowned artist. Notice I didn't say, "Massett artist," "Haida artist," "BC artist," "First Nations artist," or, for that matter, "Canadian artist"  He is all of those. But, he belongs to no one. He is the pre-eminent artist of his genre alive today. And his works belong in the canon of the Northern Northwest Coast art tradition, which had its roots millennia before the European invasion.

Thankfully,  from time to time the world gets a peek at how he expresses his experience of life. A tip of the cedar-bark hat to Mother Jones for bringing to our attention the news that this month will see the first major solo exhibition of his work in the United States. For those near to my neck of the woods, the exhibit opens November 16, 2013, at the Seattle Art Museum; it closes there on February 16, 2014. Next stop, I'm told, is in Manhattan. No dates yet.

Alan and Gillian McMillan in 1970. 
Alan does fieldwork in BC,
teaches and writes books
I hope neither minds that I've borrowed this 
lovely period piece from Gillian's facebook page.
I was made aware of Mr. Davidson in 1970. A year after he and his brother, Reg, had erected their Bear Mother pole in the town of Massett, British Columbia. It was the first carved cedar pole erected at Massett since the middle of the nineteenth century. After the pole was raised, so was my consciousness [consciousness raising was really big back then]. My mentor at the time was Alan McMillan, and it was my first semester of college.

Dr. McMillan was truly inspiring. And I tried to follow in his footsteps as an academic. It was my great good fortune to last all of three years in the academy. But that's another story, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Alan or what he taught me! I was really green in 1970. This'll tell you how green. My older sister had taken a university course on classical archaeology. I knew that much about the content. My future embarrassment arose because I heard my sis refer to the course as "Classical Studies" plus some number.

Like every good aspiring archaeologist before me I wanted to be a classical archaeologist and dig up mummies. So, in my first after-class interview with Al, he [of course] asked me what sort of coursework I'd be doing in the future. I responded, with utter confidence, that I wanted to do Classical Studies. Being the inspirational teacher that Al was, he started reeling of the sorts of classes I'd need to take when I finally fled my two-year college for the big leagues. After hearing Ancient Greek, and a nanosecond before Al could say "Latin," I realized that I'd just used a term I didn't know squat about, in error, in my first interaction with my first archaeology prof. I was already heading for the door. I couldn't stay there red faced. Somehow or other—either Al forgot or forgave—I managed to salvage my self-respect, and became the disaffected, bitter, ex-archaeologist that you have come to know and love, here at The Subversive Archaeologist.

[I've been secretly wanting to use this next expression for ages. I realize that now would be a perfect time!]

But, I digress!

We were talking about Robert Davidson and the pole-raising at Massett in 1969. It's called Bear Mother.

Carved cedar Bear Mother, by Robert and
Reg Davidson. Raised August 22, 1969,
in Massett, Haida Gwaii
(Photo from Mother Jones, and
courtesy of
Its iconography and style followed Haida tradition, a genre of meticulously rule-bound, stylized representational art that many say is the pinnacle of what Europeans have so erroneously called "primitive art." Carved cedar poles like theirs lined the beaches at the traditional village sites, some standing alone, others attached to the front of the great, post and beam, and plank, cedar houses. Each is unique. Each tells a story that relates to the family of its carver, rights to ceremonial names and dances, and the clan to which they belong. Thus, they're both social testament and incredibly beautiful works of art.  

I mentioned above that Robert Davidson is a force of nature. So was Bill Reid before him. And before Bill, there were the argillite "totem poles" made for the tourist trade and art market. The greatest historic Haida artist was Charles Edenshaw. These people have managed to keep a millenniae-old art tradition alive, despite smallpox, despite laws forbidding traditional ceremonies, despite the [again legal] sundering of families—where the kids were forcefully removed from their families, force to live in squalid residential "schools" run by corrupt church organizations who beat anybody who used their native language and sexually abused almost anybody, it would seem. Despite the deracination of generations, artists like Robert and Bill and Charles, and Reg have prevailed.

What's more, these great artists have breathed life back into a society that 40 years ago had little hope and little to live for without a way to numb the pain. The Europeans didn't just rip families apart, they ripped out the hearts of each and every "Indian" on Haida Gwaii and fed their hearts to them on a platter of feigned concern, neglect, and attempted genocide. That there were any hearts left in Massett or Skidegate still able to imagine bringing the past back to live with them, is perhaps the greatest victory for the spirit.

Perhaps that's why in the National Gallery of Canada there stands a 3-m tall aluminum sculpture, The Supernatural Eye. It puts a twist on the ancient style that's a metaphor for all his works [if anyone should ever ask me for my opinion].
The Supernatural Eye, by Robert Davidson.

I hope some of you'll be able to attend the Seattle exhibition. It is the moment's cap for a lifetime of Davidson's creativity. I know I'll be there. On opening day there'll be a performance of traditional and contemporary music and dance, courtesy of the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a group that Robert Davidson co-founded. You ought not to miss it!


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  1. Great article!! It's really a pleasure to read such a renowned artist .An artist's life has always been an inspiration for everyone.

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