200 Years of Haida Art Arrive in Vancouver

By Lee Waters

The Vancouver Art Gallery is presenting its third native exhibition this year entitled Raven Traveling: Two Centuries Of Haida Art.

After successful exhibitions of two of Canada’s most famous native artists, Norville Morrisseau and Brian Jungen, the Haida exhibit boasts “the most wide ranging and complete exhibition of Haida Art ever assembled.” The art, ranging from 19th century classics to modern ground breaking works, is drawn from both public and private collections across North America and Europe.

The VAG sought guidance from the Council of the Haida Nation and the band Councils of Skidegate and Old Massett to find a collection of artwork that would give a complete depiction of Haida culture.”

Haida culture is rich in mythology, and its most famous son Bill Reid, became famous with art that was a celebration of their myths and traditions. Reid’s legacy is worldwide and has spawned an appetite for Haida culture, which is a distinct visual language, documenting histories and supernatural worlds through the use of specific symbols and forms. Its primary function is translating past stories and events to new generations so they can understand the spirit and values of the Haida society.

An important aspect of Haida art is the reflection of its environment. Artists often draw inspiration from the natural habitat of Haida Gwaii. Some of the most beautiful islands in Canada have a history few other regions can lay claim to. The Haida Gwaii have artifacts that date back to 1100 BC.

The mystical landscape of the rain forest and the home to migrating whales are part of the tapestry of their culture – Haida mythology tells about the Raven and how he found the first men in a clamshell. These islands and its people have spawned the Native version of the beginning of the world. Art is a large part of their culture, it is not made for esthetics, it is a tool of communication, documentation and in the past, often made and used for trade.

The exhibition features an array of art including sculptures, drawings, prints, traditional sun masks, impressive woven roots, totem poles, and long canoes. There are oral histories recounted by the elders as well as translations and citations on text panels throughout the exhibit. The numerous artists exhibited range from Charles Edenshaw, the most acclaimed Haida artist of the 19th century, to the late Bill Reid, Jim Hart, Tom Price, Simeon Stilthda, Robert Davidson, and many other contemporary Haida masters.

“Raven Travelling will mark the first time many of our people will see such an extensive array of Haida art in one place,” said Vincent Collison, one of the exhibition’s Haida curators. “It is extremely exciting to pull these works together from across the continent and bring them back to our people, and to a place where we can share the work with the rest of the world.”

The exhibition is an important step in enabling the Haida people to reclaim and conserve their culture. Passing down its once banned traditions, and fighting to keep its native tongue alive. The Haida have fought to recover their heritage from invasions and the smallpox epidemic that almost decimated their entire nation. They still fight today to retain their land and save what remains of their ancient forests from logging and oil companies.

Raven Travelling is a rare and magical walk through Haida history, and one that everyone should find educational as well as entertaining.

“What you are going to see in this exhibit is so much of who we are,” Vince Collison told the Georgia Straight. “We’re still learning about the collections we have out there in the world. In terms of history, you’re catching us at the cusp.”