ALL IN THE FAMILY: The National Gallery of Canada Features the Legacy of Charles Edenshaw

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

A family’s remarkable resiliency in spite of the odds.

This weekend at the National Gallery of Canada the exquisite exhibit of Da•axiigang, the Haida name for the the artist Charles Edenshaw, is closing.

Charles, or “Chinni Charlie” as he is known to his family, was born in 1839 but despite the 175 years we are removed from his physical presence on earth his spirit continues to speak through the hands of his great grandchildren.

Silver bracelet with Haida carvings Charles Edenshaw. Sea Bear Bracelet, late 19th century silver. McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

The exhibit is housed in the galleries that are usually reserved for the Inuit Collection. This intimate space is well suited for the story of Charles and the family ties that are presented in the exhibit. As you read through the information provided you understand how important family was to him and how important he is today to his descendants that refer to him by the Haida word (Chinni) for grandfather.

When you turn left to enter into the first room of the exhibit you are met with a piece that spiritually roots the work. It is unlike the rest of the collection of platters, hats, walking sticks, and silver spoons that look as pristine as if they have come fresh from the artist’s hands. It is a cradleboard that Charles youngest daughter, Nora, identified as being hers and may have also been used for his other three daughters – Emily, Agnus, and Florence – who came before. It is worn down with the wear of practicality from safely securing babies to backs. Simply carved and embedded with abalone shells, it starts off an exhibit that includes work by the men who are descended through two of these women – James Hart and Robert Davidson.

Just beyond the cradleboard is a fantastic Transformation Mask by James who is also the hereditary Haida Chief. On the other wall Nangkilslas: He Whose Voice is Obeyed is the other Transformation Mask by Robert that bookends a bentwood chest attributed to their great-great-grandfather. A photograph on the wall beside Robert’s mask shows the one by their Chinni which inspired both of them as master carvers. Now too fragile to travel with the exhibition the strength of his descendants skill fills the void left by its absence.

Transformation Mask, circa 1882-1890: wood, bird feathers, animal fur, pigment, leather copper. / VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

In the accompanying book for the show Chief James Hart writes:

“Chinni Charlie “wished he could leave his hands to us” meaning he wanted to leave his talent to his family. In the end he did. The ones who carry on in the family like to say that “we get it from Chinni Charlie and Nonni Isabella – it runs in the family.” 

Nonni Isabella was Charles wife, known also by her Haida name Qwii.aang. A talented artist in her own right, the exhibit showcases the work that she did with Charles, her partner in life and art.

Her skill as a basket and hat weaver using spruce root can been viewed up close and personal. The exhibit includes many examples of her work woven with tedious precision. Charles would paint her pieces infusing them with more layers of meaning to teach the “Haida Way”. These beautiful objects also speak to the relationship between spouses who were creatively inspired by each other’s talent.

A wide brimmed hat woven out of spruce root and painted in Haida designsCharles and Isabella Edenshaw (attr.). Eagle Hat, c. 1890 spruce root, paint. Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia. Photo: Trevor Mills. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

In this generation the spirit of Nonni Isabella is embodied in her great-great-granddaughter Lisa Hageman Yahgulanaas. Lisa is a talented textile artist who “weaves in the geometric style of weaving known as Yelth Koo or Raven’s Tail” embracing the complexities of the art form as her Nonni did.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles Edenshaw

Charles Edenshaw (attr.) Model Pole, c. 1890–1905. Argillite. Image provided by the National Gallery.

A cultural strand was not severed.

The night of the opening you could witness the thread of Charles’ legacy stitching the past to the present as family members from the temperate West Coast arrived to the chilly winter of Ottawa to be present and pay their respects.

When I ask artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas to tell me what is important about his Chinni’s work when viewed in a contemporary context he replies:

“my great grandfather worked in one the most important traditional styles, the tradition of innovation.”

Long before Picasso happened upon the African masks that inspired him to produce a radical new style of painting, Charles was soaking up what arrived in his world that was ‘exotic’ and foreign to him. Reading the newspapers and books that landed in his lap from faraway lands, he would cut out what interested him to hang like an inspiration board on the walls where he worked. Animals not indigenous to the terrain of Haida Gwaii, like elephants and lions, started to make appearances in his work but with an incorporation that seemed natural when viewed amongst the Haida symbols.

Not only did Charles break new ground with regards to hybridized content but he experimented with materials, like gold and silver, introduced during the Colonial expansion. He incorporated the new with the traditional materials and was able to confidently shift from wood, to metals and then on to argillite as evidenced by the wonderful platters contained in the exhibit. These platters, made of the black slate that was locally quarried yet still labourious to obtain, are transmissions of the oral traditions that still survive in these (post) post modern times.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawCharles Edenshaw (attr.). Platter, pre-1894. Argillite The Field Museum, Chicago, 17952 Photo: © The Field Museum. Image courtesy The National Gallery of Canada.

This contemporary legacy goes beyond family to include so many carvers working today. Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin recalls how his first instructor (Louis Minard) was taught by A.P Johnson, an artist who had some point learned at the hands of Charles. You see the substantiation of Charles in Nicholas’ work. One of his recent creations is a beautifully carved piece titled Indian Children’s Bracelet, a deceptive title for what it really is – child sized handcuffs used to restrain Aboriginal children who were being separated from their families and taken off to schools. (Read more here.)

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawIndian Children’s Bracelet. Hand Engraved, Iron. Nicholas Galanin. 2014. Image courtesy Nicholas Galanin. 

The Indigenous traditions of the Pacific West Coast, like carving and weaving, have continued to influence the international art scene and the work of Nicholas as well as Charles’ familial successors – Robert, James, Michael and Lisa – are part of collections around the world. But this is nothing new. Even in his time, Charles was recognized widely. In 1902 the ethnographer C.F. Newcombe declared Charles to be “the best carver in wood and stone now living.”

Almost two centuries of international influence! This would be remarkable for any family but the fact we are even able to experience the work is nothing short of miraculous. Charles lived through not one but two small pox epidemics that claimed almost the entire Haida population. The odds were that he should not have survived let alone gone on to thrive as a celebrated artist with an extensive family still practicing in the traditions he learned from his own elders 200 years ago.

Along with the almost complete loss of a people, the traditional ways of being were forced to go underground. The Anglican missionaries condemned the practice of tattooing the Haida clan symbols on skin so bracelets instead of bodies became the place where one could claim their identity. In 1884 the Potlatch was banned and a thriving culture almost came to a halt but was not fully annihilated. Somehow that thinning cultural strand, weakened by ‘progress’ and British expansion, was not entirely severed.The combined four hands of this couple stitched, built, and carved a new path to Sovereignty. They did this all while raising their children – 11 in all.

Today we prosper from the richness they left behind and the talent passed forward.

The Charles Edenshaw exhibit is a love letter to a grandfather, a creative collaborator and a spiritual mentor. This exhibit is a family tale that can inspire us all.

The exhibition ends Sunday May 24 at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. For exhibit hours click here.

More information on the Charles Edenshaw exhibit can be found here.

black stroke

All descended from Charles Edenshaw, artists Michael Nicoll YahgulanaasCorey Bulpitt and Chief James Hart demonstrate that the Haida culture is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Abstracted drawing “Papered Over” (2011.4.25 36″ H X 24″ W) by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Image courtesy Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas.

Created with graphites, crayon, watercolour, ink pen and brush, rice paper and canvas support “Papered Over” is a work Michael writes was “inspired by the winter light on clear days in Calgary Alberta will in residence at Mont Royal University.”

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawWork by Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt (great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw) at Sakahàn, The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Along with Larissa, Corey explains his process for the above work commissioned as part of last year’s Sakahàn, the National Gallery’s International Indigenous Art Exhibit.

“James Hart, great-great-grandson of Charles Edenshaw, and exhibition curator Robin Wright, discuss what makes the Charles Edenshaw exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, so special.” View on Youtube here.

Outside the National Gallery with sun shining through the glass and a poster of a bracelet advertising Charles EdenshawThe Three Watchmen by Chief James Hart on Sussex Drive in front of The National Gallery of Canada. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

TIME FOR RADICAL CHANGE: Sakahàn at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Group of children Tlingit / Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin (top right) with some of the kids of the Sakahàn Youth Camp.

Sowing the seeds of change in programming for youth.

All of us have a story or two about a moment that was magical and breathed life into the parts of our mind that weren’t aware that we could dream so big.

Ottawa based Anishinaabe artist Melody McKiver tells of her mother, as a teenager, meeting Daphne Odjig – one of Canada’s great artists. Her father had taken her to an exhibit in Dryden, in the mid-70s. That chance encounter, although short, was powerful and pivotal in her mother’s life because she never knew that a Native woman could aspire to what Daphne had become.

If you can’t locate yourself in the faces of the makers of culture it may be impossible for you to know that the light inside of you has the potential to shine bright. Which is why programs like Sakahàn Youth are so critical. We won’t understand the full generational impact of Sakahàn on the Canadian cultural landscape  for a long time but I don’t doubt it will be pivotal for this country.

Left to Right: Some of the members of the Junior Curator Program. Children from the Summer Camp Program all at the opening night of Nigi Mikan / I Found It: Indigenous Women’s Identity at Fall Down Gallery, Ottawa. Curated by the Junior Curators.

Sakahàn – meaning “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin peoples.

Artists working outside on rock carving with machines for cutting into stone. Tlingit / Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin and assistant working outside of the National Gallery on his piece “Nature Will Reclaim You” just one of the many outdoor works.

For Melody, also a co-organizer for Niigaan Treaty Workshops, it is the first time in her lifetime she has experienced Ottawa engaging with Aboriginal artists in such a meaningful way and she is encouraged by the positive change. The exhibit also engages the people of Ottawa as it extends out into the city in many different venues and events – inside / outside, Government institutions as well as artist-run centres, university campuses, & urban powwows. The exhibit even extends beyond the city to include Decolonize Me currently on at the Art Gallery of Windsor and shows like artist Jeff Kahm at Urban Shaman, Winnipeg.

Melody goes on to say that because of  “the way that Sakahàn is set up it commands a different level of thought and introspection than other exhibits of this scale.”

And it is this insertion and inclusion into so many spaces that repeats an important motif across the Nation’s Capital – that contemporary Canada includes strong Indigenous voices.

Woman standing in front of an art work at a gallery speaking to youth sitting around her on the floor.

Photo by Patrick Doyle of the Ottawa Citizen

Métis artist and the National Gallery’s Sakahàn Educator Jaime Koebel relates this story:

LARA – “She was a young girl who had participated in the Sakahàn summer camp tours. I explained to the youth about “Āniwaniwa” and how a building that the community had a special connection to was overtaken by a flood. This flood was created by industry people in New Zealand who needed a hydro-electric dam to produce energy for the diamond mine they were putting in. She cried because I related it to losing Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health or the Odawa Native Friendship Centre and having love for a building. [The loss of that building would mean] not being able to practice your culture or traditions or have community gatherings anymore “because, what if the Ottawa River covered it all?” like the Waikato River in Hora Hora did? It was an example of how much this can affect our next generation. The very next visit, she was explaining to a new summer camp youth about Brett Graham’s “Āniwaniwa”  piece – she was confident and she wasn’t crying, she was participating and had learned a little piece of Indigenous history.”


Aniwaniwa
from Tony Clark on Vimeo.

Maori artist Brett Graham’s “Āniwaniwa”  is one of the moving installations at the National Gallery that communicates, in an aesthetically stunning way, a painful memory. I doubt that there is a single work included at Sakahàn that doesn’t touch on deep pain but with 150 pieces by over 80 Indigenous artists from 16 countries it is clear that there is a growing global movement to express and explore the best way to communicate the legacy of trauma to audiences of all backgrounds.

While visiting Ottawa from New Zealand Brett Graham had a chance to lead a workshop with the summer camp kids. With incredible experiences like this, where the youth are up-close and personal with some of the leading international artists of our time, they get the chance to have many magical moments.

The spark created by Sakahàn will give our youth the chance to go on to create a new cultural legacy for this country. It’s going to be amazing to see the artistic fruits that these children grow.

Can’t wait!

Logo for Sakahan Youth


Trailer by filmmaker Melody McKiver for Sakahàn Youth‘s Junior Curator project – Nigi Mikan / I Found It: Indigenous Women’s Identity

SAKAHAN CLOSES THIS LABOUR MONDAY, SEPT 2. DON’T MISS YOUR CHANCE TO SEE THIS GROUNDBREAKING EXHIBIT!

Sakahàn’s Youth Programs through the National Gallery include:

Youth Tours
Junior Curator Program
Sakahàn Youth Ambassadors
Our Ways; Our Stories
– a lecture workshop series

As well as partnership programs with the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition:
Sakahàn Youth Summer Camps
Concentric Circles – Artists stay at 3 local reserves (Kitigan Zibi, Pikwàkanagàn, Akwesasne) for 1 week
Sakahan School Programs – this program will continue past Sakahan’s closing date of Sept 2 into the school year.

Follow  Sakahàn Youth on Facebook and twitter @Sakahan_Youth.

Also check out the CBC’s Waubgeshig Rice’s coverage of the Sakahàn Youth program
Teaching through aboriginal art camp: Children in Ottawa are learning about the First Nations culture through the Sakahàn camp”

Poster for Youth programming for Sakahan with image of a stone carving of two hands joined by a lock.

 

SUBTEXT AND THE CITY: Canada Know Your Brand


View from Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec while visiting the Indigenous & Urban Exhibit for Sakahàn.

The True North strong and free where nature is cherished and everyone lives happily ever after (?)

This place country we call Canada is kind of a mixed bag. ‘Multiculturalism’ in theory sounds welcoming but in practice can be problematic and is often accompanied by language that renders people tongue-tied and inarticulate.

So it’s easy to leave the talking to logos, slogans, and flags or monuments commemorating memories that are more complex than snapshot on vacay allows. But if you are willing to listen the city speaks!

Why not take a tour right now? If you click on each of the images below you can find out more about the work that’s in the picture as well as the artists and how each piece deepens the dialogue of the narrative of this nation.

Mixed Bag Mag would like to thank all the Cultural Provocateurs encountered while in the Capital visiting the National Gallery’s exhibit Sakahàn and offsite partner events. When it came to food for thought you each provided an all-you-can-eat buffet and I appreciate the exchange of ideas.

Harold Adler & Christopher Wong of Asinabka Film Festival

Jason Braeg – Artist / Curator and one of the founding members of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective.

Chris Henderson – Authour of Aboriginal Power

Greg Hill – Audain Curator & Head of the Department of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery

Alexandra Nahwegahbow – Artist / Researcher @allgussied_up

Jeff Thomas – Artist / Curator and contributing Sakahàn artist

Ola Wlusek – Curator at Ottawa Art Gallery

Also it was a pleasure to meet one of the international Sakahàn artists’ Nicholas Galanin. Nicholas’ beautiful masks can be seen inside the exhibit but outside, for the next week or so, you can check out Nicholas carving out another commission at the back of the gallery right by Roxy Paine’s One Hundred Foot Line. Suggested donation for watching the performance of what I refer to as ‘artist chipping away’ – a double shot Americano.

Thanks as well to Amy from the UK for being the guinea pig upon which I practiced my tour guide abilities. And to my other bunk mate Candace – Welcome to Canada! May it be a wonderful new home for you!

MIXED BAG MAG recommends Niigaan’s Treaty Workshops:

Niigaan workshops use “blankets to represent the lands of what is now Canada, and the distinct cultures and nations which live on those lands to this day. Participants represent the First Peoples; when they step onto the blanket, they are taken back in time to the arrival of Europeans…the exercise goes through the history of treaty-making, colonization and resistance that resulted in the nation we today call Canada.”

“Anishinaabe prophecy tells of a time when two nations will join to make a mighty nation. These two nations are the original people of Turtle Island (today known as North America) and the settlers of this land. However, it is warned that this mighty peaceful nation will only be built if both nations choose the right path. We all must understand the history behind the current political and social relationship before we can begin the process of decolonization. The legal history includes the treaties of peace and friendship, the British North America Acts, Section 35 of the Canadian constitution, the Indian Act, and the legal duty to consult First Nations; all these agreements and legal documents influence our ability to go forward together on the right path.  Our history is littered with forgotten events, either deliberately overlooked, or rationalized away somehow.” (cited from Niigaan’s website)

Metal sculpture of native man in traditional attire kneeling with quills. Canada's Parliament Buildings in the background. Metal sculpture of two men and a woman in armed forces attire with words reconcilation underneath them and antique church spires behind them.
Facade of old stone building, tree branches and fence of boards with phrase Idle No More written on it.
Metal sculpture of native men in traditional attire with eagle spanning wings above their heads, wolf at their feet and building with Canada written on it in the background.






Above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.