Archive for the ‘Haida Gwaii’ Category

Gary Minaker Russ is probably the most imaginative argillite carver at work today. Resisting the pressure to do endless imitations of Bill Reid’s “Raven and the First Men” or to embellish his work with flashy but overdone inlays, he approaches each piece with imagination and integrity. The disadvantage of this approach is that his work is sometimes overlooked because it lacks the predictability needed for a successful brand, but the advantage is that he often produces works that are both beautiful and original, such as “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam.”

“Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is an argillite rattle, with abalone eyes. The rattle itself is a clam shell with broken shell inside and surrounded by a web of red cedar made by weaver Maxine Edgar. Leather wraps the handle of a rattle, which rests in an argillite base.

Although the top of the base has a simple salmon-eye design, the rattle as a whole is a naturalistic rather than a formline design – an approach you sometimes see in historic argillite pieces, but rarely see in modern work. All eight tentacles are present, and, if you look closely, you can see the striations of muscle along the tentacles, and the lines of suckers where the underside of the tentacles are visible. The imitation of life is not total, giving way to artistic considerations in such details as the roundness of the head, the abalone eyes, and the darkness of the argillite, but in general the realism is much greater than you normally find in Haida art.

There is realism, too, in the general concept of the rattle; an octopus actually does crush clams and other shellfish in the way that the rattle depicts. Once you see it, the idea seems simple and ideally suited to the shape of a rattle – yet, so far as I have been able to find, no other artist, historic or contemporary, or in any medium has seen the analogy except Minaker Russ. The day that I bought it, he showed it to several passing Haida friends, and not one failed to exclaim about how unique the design was.

Another important aspect of “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is the fact that it is mixed media. Viewing Northwest Coast Art, it is easy to forget that what you see would have been historically a part of everyday life. However, the fact that this piece is not only a functional rattle but also includes a staple seafood and the work of another artist firmly embeds it in the culture that it comes from.

The connection is all the stronger because, according to Minaker Russ, the clam shell was picked up on North Beach near Masset on Haida Gwaii, which is traditionally the place where Raven discovered the first people in a shell. Historically, the shell was not a clam until Bill Reid depicted it as one, nor did Reid depict a cockle shell; yet, all the same, to a modern audience, the clam shell emphasizes the cultural connection.

I admit to a certain guilt at buying a functional rattle that I will only shake gently from time to time, for fear of breaking the shell. But, aesthetically and culturally, “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is a piece I feel privileged to see every day. It naturally draws the eye, so I’ve given in to the inevitable and positioned it on the focal point of the living room, where it belongs.

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Last Friday, the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia were officially renamed Haida Gwaii, the name preferred by the First Nations people who live there. I suppose I should have a twinge of uneasiness about the fact that part of the geography I learned so painfully in elementary school has disappeared into the recycle bin with Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but my main feeling is that the change was long overdue.

In fact, in the last couple of decades, I’ve hardly heard anyone refer to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The only exceptions I can recall are The Globe and Mail, which I often think of a newspaper written by seventy-year-olds for seventy-years-old (and as too Eastern to know better), and members of the Monarchist League, who blindly defend anything with the remotest connection to royalty. The people who live on the islands call them Haida Gwaii, and that is enough for most people, either because they’re polite or out a vague sense that the people who live there should have a right to determine the name.

I mean, it’s not as though one person in ten knows who Queen Charlotte was. I know, but, then I read history. Yet although in theory I have a good deal of sympathy for Queen Charlotte, who had to endure George III’s madness, in which he sometimes yearned for a woman other than her, in practice she doesn’t have much to do with British Columbia. Her sole association is that a ship on George Dixon’s voyage of discovery in 1786 was named for her. She probably would have hard-pressed to locate the islands without help.

At any rate, the 18th century explorers of the Pacific, Cook and Vancouver included, may have been fine surveyors, but I don’t see why we should regard their poverty of imagination as unchangeable. When they came to naming landmarks, their resources were painfully limited: First, their officers, then their ships, then all the members of the English royal family they could remember, then start all over again. If you read about their voyages of discovery, you soon sense an air of desperation about their names. Sometimes, I’m surprised that we don’t have coast lines full of No Name Bays, Capes #42, and Mounts Whatyoumacallit.

By contrast to the arbitrary names of the European explorers, Haida Gwaii is deeply meaningful to those who live there. Translated as something like “Islands of the People,” the new name acknowledges the people who have lived there for a minimum of ten thousand years, developed and still practice some of the most genuinely moving art that I have seen, and who are now moving rapidly towards self-determination. All this seem far more worth acknowledging in a name than a half-forgotten royal consort. Besides, if anyone wants to remember Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the islands still include a Queen Charlotte City.

But when you think of it, the name change isn’t really radical at all. It’s just a recognition of how things are – and have been for some time.

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