A Leap Into Genius Off Robert Davidson’s Abstract Edge

By Shauna Lewis

It was standing room only on the evening of June 22, as more than 400 distinguished guests arrived at the Museum of Anthropology on Musqeam territory at the University of British Columbia. Filling the museum’s main gallery, onlookers came from far and wide to share in the opening of premier Haida Gwaii artist Robert Davidson’s remarkable exhibit entitled Abstract Edge.

Packed into the gallery and overflowing into the museum corridor, the assembly of spectators waited in anticipation for the evening’s festivities to commence. With the opening address delivered by museum director Michael Ames, the official welcome and prayer expressed by a Musqueam Elder, and a taste of the night’s entertainment provided by Haida Gwaii’s Rainbow Creek dancers; the opening ceremony to Davidson’s show was a fitting initiation to a night overflowing with cultural veneration and exceptional artistry.

Words of praise and recognition for Davidson’s works resonated throughout the opening ceremony as Chief Reynold Russ of Old Masset, Haida Gwaii and the Chief of Skidegate, Clarence Dempsey, conveyed their pride in both Davidson’s character and his works.

“He [Davidson] believes in what he does,” stated Russ. Davidson’s steadfastness and dedication to both his craft and Haida lineage was also illuminated in Chief Russ’ address: “Robert you did so much for our Haida people, for showing our culture and artistic work.” In finalizing his reverent address to Davidson, Russ concluded on an emotional note: “You are the eagle of the dawn,” he said. “We are so proud of you.”

Reg Davidson, brother of Davidson, also took to the podium to deliver a short yet poignant speech. Laced with respect for his brother and his works, the younger Davidson touched on elements of the artist’s persona, as he relayed personal information to those of us lucky enough to be a part of the culturally lavish affair. Relaying stories of the artist’s youth, Reg’s speech touched on how his brother believed it important to balance the symbiotic relationship of civic obligations with his artistry concluding that he passionately made time for both.

Additional comments in the opening address were articulated by a small number of local and national museum delegates. Greg Hill, representative of Ottawa’s National Gallery, expressed his pleasure in the exhibit, announcing that Davidson’s works will be a part of a nationwide exhibition that will conclude at the National Gallery of Canada in 2007.

Next, Karen Duffec, exhibit curator at the Museum of Anthropology, took to the podium to shed light on the inspiration behind Davidson’s innovative exhibit. Addressing the crowd, Duffec began by illuminating the conceptual elements within Davidson’s works.

In reference to the Abstract Edge exhibit, Duffec acknowledged Davidson’s theme as being centered on the space, line, or ‘edge’ between that which is tangible and that which is intangible. Through interpreting the ‘edge of abstraction’ as being the medial space between both the cultural/spiritual and physical/material plain, Duffec referred to Davidson’s works as a “meeting at the center” of two distinct realms.

“The duality is always there,” said Duffec, in reference to the exhibit. Davidson’s art “cannot really be isolated from cultural practices” she said, as his works and their blatant amalgamation of traditional and contemporary elements denote a sort of merger within the edge of physical and cultural space.

Artist takes center stage
When all of the speeches from family, friends, and museum representatives had concluded, Michael Ames called upon Robert Davidson to take center stage. After initially thanking the Musqueam people for being on their traditional land, Davidson began his address with the formal introduction of his Haida dance group, the Rainbow Creek dancers. Following a beautifully executed prayer song and ornate robe naming ceremony, the evening concluded with a myriad of customary dances and songs that can very well be noted, along with art, as the integral threads of Haida culture.

Before guests were permitted to view the exhibit and sample some of the traditional First Nations foods set up in the outdoor adjacent longhouse, Davidson concluded by delivering expressions of gratitude to those who have walked beside him throughout his artistic journey. Stating that he was “happy to be a part of a team that will make a difference in the world today,” Davidson thanked those individuals who have shaped his life personally and publicly.

Conveying that he has been blessed to have such a supportive family, the artist thanked his grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and other extended family members. Calling his family his team, Davidson also expressed his gratitude to his wife Terri-Lynn, his son Ben and daughter Sarah for their undying support.

Last but not least, Davidson thanked the Chiefs and elderly members of his nation, who he said “maintained the thin thread of knowledge…the thin thread of art.” In both laying the foundation for First Nations artists and bridging the gap from the past to the present, Davidson also extended special thanks to Robert Davidson Sr, Bill Reid, Victor Adams, Todd Davidson, Pat McQueen, Kim Pearson and others whose guidance and mentorship have been integral in his career.

In reference to our contemporary society, Davidson noted that “we are living in a very blessed time,” and he urged us to focus on what we are blessed with rather than what we lack.

“Together collectively we can make a difference individually,” he said. Regarding the future, the artist simply stated: “Energy is to rebuild…goal is to rebuild.”

Past and present floats through exhibit
Following the superb opening ceremony, and after partaking of elk, salmon and other savory delights, I made my return to the museum and toward Robert Davidson’s Abstract Edge exhibit. Unfamiliar with his works, I was excited with what I would soon be viewing. While seasoned within the artistic genre, nothing could have prepared me for the west coast talent that I would soon be appreciating.

A unification of past and present seemed to free float throughout the exhibit, as if there were no old or new styles, but a mixture of both. The duality that Duffec had earlier described was an essential ingredient within every piece, regardless of mediums used.

Although installations of monochromatic aluminum, like that of Davidson’s newest work entitled Meeting at the Center (2004), were juxtaposed with a low relief red cedar and acrylic piece entitled Green (2002); a common theme of mergence, separation and the space in between was visually echoed through each of his works.

While Davidson’s active use of negative space, curvilinear contours and rigid lines allude to the traditional attributes of Haida art; the incorporation of postmodern shapes and occasional optical illusions derived from unconventional color hues, enable the marriage of that which is traditional to that which is contemporary.

By creating masterpieces splashed with the rather eccentric hues of avocado green and canary yellow, an avant-garde backdrop floats the execution of traditional shapes in various works. It is within such duality, that questions arise in regard to stereotypical First Nations artistry. Is this true Native art? And if no, why not? Many individuals all too often idealize Aboriginal art as having a specific style, and in such traditional technique, a way of stereotyping specific methods and approaches is identified.

Davidson, like his mentor Bill Reid, go beyond set ideologies of what is defined traditional art of the northwest coast, and in doing so, an emergence of what is intrinsically Indian is both transformed and catapulted into the 21st century.

Davidson is nothing short of a trailblazer in regard to First Nations artistry, and his works are the very representation of a style in transformation. While the importance of preserving traditional elements is actively portrayed within his pieces, a contemporary style also emerges; posing the question once again “what is Native art”? Davidson answers this theoretical question through the implementation of duality in his works.

Native art mustn’t solely live within the echelons of historic representation set to adhere to a specific unwavering style; Native art can and does, as seen within Davidson’s exhibit, merge fittingly with postmodern style. It is within this fusion of contrasting elements that the increasingly blurred conception of old and new, figurative and conceptual teeters on the Edge of Abstraction.