I confess: I’m an enthusiast for Northwest Coast art, yet I have no trace whatsoever of First Nations ancestry in me. This fact doesn’t bother me particularly; I like what I like. But, as I festoon every square centimeter of wall space with art, one or two people have wondered if I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. Can someone with my background really appreciate Northwest Coast art?
My first response is flippant: If not, then a lot of talented artists will have to take day jobs.
But the response deserves a more serious answer, if only because it keeps coming up. So, in short, I think that I have no trouble whatsoever finding ties to the school of art I like best.
I should say at the beginning that the appeal that Northwest Coast art has for me has nothing to do with primitivism. I despise primitivism as condescending and labored, and want nothing to do with it. If I felt otherwise, then my interest in Northwest Coast art would probably extend to the Woodlands and Inuit schools in North America, and to the Maori of New Zealand. But I have only a mild interest in any of those. I feel that I don’t know enough to properly appreciate them.
Besides, I don’t believe in the noble savage myth, and wouldn’t apply it to the Northwest Coast cultures if I did. They are far too complex and sophisticated.
In fact, Northwest Coast art today is not an isolated, entirely self-referential art form at all. Northwest Coast art as we have known it in the last sixty years or so is – for all its historical roots – a thoroughly modern art form. If it draws on the myths and cultures of the coastal peoples for inspiration and design, it relies just as much on European art for technique and reference. Not only are artists experimenting with new forms such as glass, but often they are working with a full awareness of not only the local school of art but also other schools from around the world.
For example, when the young artist Alano Edzerza can do a print called “Think Like a Raven” that he describes as a Northwest Coast version of Rodin’s Thinker, you know that he and his peers are not working in an isolated tradition. For all their local roots, they are also thoroughly internationalist. In this sense, it seems perfectly appropriate that the central figure in the Northwest Coast renaissance should be Bill Reid, a man who was not only of mixed European and Haida descent, but who also studied the latest jewelry techniques in Europe and applied them to the local school of art. When a school is so internationalist, then few people should have any trouble finding a connection to it.
Even were that not so, I could still appreciate Northwest Coast works for their sense of craft. By this, I do not just mean the finishing details on a Norman Tait mask or the sense of line in a Susan Point graphic design. Nor do I just mean that Northwest Coast artists today can choose between the classicism of working with traditional forms and the romanticism of innovation, although this situation means that Northwest Coast art is one of the most varied and flexible schools of modern art.
I am also referring to the whole geometric basis of the art, with the repetition of simple forms adding up to the creation of more complex ones. This structure seems to straddle the line between representational and semi-abstract art, falling to one side or the other according to the preferences or the whims of the artist. How each artist goes about creating complex shapes from the simple ones is an inexhaustible study, and one that exists at least to some extent outside the specific tradition. In many ways, it is a matter of pure technique.
However, the greatest appeal of Northwest Coast art for me is very simple. I am sure that I would appreciate the school even more if I were Haida or Tsimshian or Salish. Then, perhaps, I would have the cultural resonances and perhaps familial familiarity to understand more completely what I am seeing when I look at a piece of Northwest Coast art.
However, I do count myself lucky that I have the next best thing. My family may have been on the northwest coast for less than a hundred years, but I have lived all my life here. If my knowledge of the cultural references is learned from books, the natural references are second nature to me.
True, I live in a urban area, but that area is Vancouver, where modern industrial life and the wilds are so close together that you can go from downtown into wilderness in less than an hour unless it happens to be rush hour. Being in such proximity, the wild is always intruding on the city, and you don’t need to be a hiker or cross-country skier to find it.
Even though my day job is at a computer in my house, I have still confronted a raven eye to eye and knowing that another sentient being was watching me. From that experience, I have no trouble understanding why the raven is a trickster in local mythology. I have been deep enough into the northern rainforest that I have felt the disquieting silence that explains the stories about the Dzunuk’wa. I have seen orcas in the water, and my sense of spring is partly involved with the seals going upriver chasing the eulachon, just as the end of summer is marked by the salmon runs (or, increasingly these days, their failure). The landscape that the art talks about is the one that I live in, and, while as a city-dweller I see far less of it than the people living here three centuries ago did, enough remains for me to identify with it to a degree.
By contrast, I can feel far less for the art of the Celtic and Germanic peoples that likely make up my actual ancestry. I don’t live in the land that produces it.
No doubt for some people, these connections are still not enough to give me the right to appreciate Northwest Coast art. They might even say that I appreciate it for the wrong reasons. Yet, with six hundred years dividing me from the Italian renaissance, the same might be said of my appreciation of Michelangelo or Raphael. Art speaks to its viewers in many ways, and, in the end, what matters is that it speaks at all – not what dialect it uses.