Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Mike Dangeli’ Category

I’ve been interested in Mike Dangeli’s work since I saw his ridicule mask in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. The idea of taking a traditional form of commentary and applying it to modern relations between the First Nations and industrial culture seemed far wittier – and ultimately, more meaningful – than the other post-modern statements in the show. Later, when I heard Dangeli lecture about his efforts to live his culture in a modern context, I became even more interested. But it was only in October 2010 that I got around to commissioning a piece from him.

Whenever I commission work from an artist, I like to suggest only broad guidelines, and encourage the artist to experiment and maybe do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Accordingly, I told Dangeli that the painting was to be in honor of my late partner Trish Williams – the second piece I had commissioned in her memory – and could have up to four raised canvases. We discussed the primary colors, and I left him the pamphlet from her memorial service and some of the feathers I had collected over the years from our parrots. Remembering, too, Mike’s association of the north wind as a messenger between this world and the creator that might appear at a funeral, I also suggested that the north wind might be part of the design.

When I came to pick up the painting three months later, it had grown in its creation, with two side panels added to give room for Dangeli’s design.

The central panel of “Honoring Her Spirit” depicts Trish in raven form, with me represented by the red face on her wing. Around her are four ravens, for the four nanday parrots in our household during her lifetime, their bodies painted in the colors of nandays.

To the right, is a panel showing the north wind in the spirit realm. Where the central panel is made of definite lines in a more or less traditional formline design, the north wind is painted with thinner and less definite lines, its breath curling in non-traditional designs. The implication seems to be that we can only see hints of the spirit world – that nothing in it is as definite to our senses as the world around us.

On the four raised canvases, the birds sit poised between the two worlds, which suggests that they are part of both, or can move between them. The red lines on the raised canvases are roughly reminiscent of traditional northern designs, and spill over into the central panel, as the feathers do, both perhaps suggesting the interconnections between the two worlds.

However, the north wind is also blowing into the central panel, suggesting the coming of death. Trish’s transition into death is shown on the left hand panel, where her image is mirrored imperfectly, simplified and disjointed and drained of color to reflect our imperfect understanding of what happens after life.

This is a simple but powerful idea, ingeniously strengthened by the different styles in the panels. Yet what is eerie is that, although Dangeli did not know while he was painting, one of our four parrots died before he completed the paining – and only one of the birds is looking into the other world. The other three, who are still alive, are facing towards the everyday world. And if that is not enough, the feathers at the top center are from the dead parrot, although Dangeli no doubt picked them out at random. Whether these touches are serendipity or an example of the heightened perceptions of an artist, I won’t say, but they do add to the already highly personalized subject matter.

The painting now hangs in my bedroom, below two examples of Trish’s needlework. That seemed the most appropriate place for it.

Read Full Post »

Organizing a meetup group, I’ve discovered, is a good way to find new things to worry about.

When I first started the Northwest Coast Art Meetup Group in Vancouver, I worried that no one would show up to the first meeting. I tried to minimize the worry by asking artist and dancer Mike Dangeli to be the first speaker. Then Mike sent out an invitation to all his Facebook friends, and I worried whether the space I’d booked – the lobby of The Network Hub – would be large enough for everyone who said they planned to attend.

However, I shouldn’t have worried (although I did, of course, being the sort of person I am: About whether the third floor of a building without an elevator was too high for anybody, or too inaccessible; whether the food that co-organizer Nathan Bauman brought would be eaten, whether everybody enjoyed the talk; you name it, and I worried about it).

I counted eighteen at the meetup’s first event yesterday evening – fewer than I had expected or feared, but better than most first meetup events can manage from what several people told me. I suspect that predictions of snow kept the numbers down.

Mike had agreed to talk about “Art and the Potlatch.” It’s a subject that he is well-equipped to discuss, having given fifteen potlatches, and given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in art at them.

I knew in the abstract the importance of potlatches in First Nations cultures, and the importance that art played in them. However, it is one thing to understand something in theory and entirely another to see overwhelming proof of it. As Mike talked, I gained an appreciation of the wide variety of events covered by the term. Births, puberty, betrothal, marriage, the assumption of titles or responsibility – listening to the passing mentions of all the different occasions, I appreciated in a way that I hadn’t really before just how many rites of passage were contained within that simple word from the Chinook jargon. A single word didn’t seem enough to cover so many different occasions.

In fact, it occurs to me that this poverty of expression helped to hide just how devastating the banning of the potlatch from 1884 to 1951 actually was – and why they continued to be celebrated in secret. The same missionaries who urged the banning of the potlatch would have been outraged had anyone tried to ban their own baptisms, marriages and funerals. Yet either they didn’t notice or they didn’t care that that was what they were doing by passing the anti-potlatch legislation.

 

Another impression I took from Mike’s talk is how closely the art of the coastal First Nations is connected to these rites of passage. Not only the amount of art given, but the sheer variety – paintings, hats, masks, robes, jewelry, dancing regalia – on Mike’s slides impressed this point. Since that was what I hoped would come from his talk, I was glad to feel that realization sinking into me, and I hope that others at the meetup did as well. I didn’t want the group to be a bunch of dilettantes, but to provide a real understanding of the art’s roots and connections – and there’s no doubt that Mike started the meetings off the right way.

No one had any questions at the end, but few were in a hurry to leave, either. Most stood talking for the next forty minutes, and seemed enthused by what they had just heard. One or two, who were artists themselves, or the recent recipients of gifts, showed their own pieces of art. Many thanked me for starting the group.

I’d call the evening a moderately successful beginning. Now, I want to arrange the next event, and see if a bit of a community can’t be organized from the group.

Read Full Post »

“I’ve been doing art all my life,” Mike Dangeli, the up and coming Northwest Coast artist says. But although he identifies himself mainly as an artist, you cannot talk to him for very long before realizing that he is also many other things — a member of the Git Hayetsk Dancers, the heir to a chieftainship, and a man passionately committed to living in the culture of his Nisga’a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian ancestors within the context of modern technological society. Nor can you separate any of these things from the others, because Dangeli is at least as well known for his artistic work for ceremonies and regalia as for his commercial offerings.

Mike Dangeli

The interconnections go a long way back, although Dangeli took some time to bring them all together. He got his start in art early, making his own dance regalia when he was four or five with his grandmother, artist Louise Barton-Dangeli. He went on to learn acrylics, water colors and oils from her, as well cedar pouches, bags, and beaded necklaces.

At the same time, he learned “everything from weaving to painting to beadwork” from his mother, Arlene Roberts, both individually and as part of the yearly programs at the Chilkoot Cultural Camp in southeast Alaska.

At the camp, he learned from its organizers, Richard and Julie Folta and Tlingit artist Austin Hammond . From an old couple he only remembers as Mr. and Mrs. King, he also learned how to make drums — “that’s everything from taking a deer skin and scraping off the fat to making your own rawhide to string the drum,” Dangeli explains. He enjoyed the process so much that he estimates that by the time he became a professional artist at the age of 27, he had made “over five hundred drums.”

Beaver Drum

Another important early experience was spending the summer travelling on the Alaska ferries with his mother and grandmother, stopping at each port to sell what they made. Dangeli recalls that they did well enough to pay for their fares and his clothes for the coming school year. Through this experience, he also learned from his guardians “how to talk to galleries, to tourist shops, and cultural centers.”

Dangeli’s first training in carving came from his uncle in Prince George. “I spent a summer with him learning basic design and carving bowls and helping him with his work,” Dangeli says. “It was a lot harder than it looked, and I was a teenybopper with a lot of different interests.”

The road to an artist’s life

As a young man, Dangeli staged his own form of rebellion by joining the American army as an Air Ranger. He explains, “I’ve heard all my life that I’m in line to take a chief’s name. When you hear something like that all your life and you have to be good because of it, you decide you’re missing out and think, ‘I’m going to do my own thing.'”

The army seemed a natural choice, because he was thinking of going into law enforcement. “I didn’t see myself as an artist and living that kind of of lifestyle.”

Dangeli spent ten years in the military, rising to Staff Sergeant, but continued carving and designing in his spare time, and visiting family members when possible. It was on these visits that he started gaining a more deliberate understanding of his nation’s Angiosk –traditional territory — and Ayaawx — customs.

Adjusting our frame of reference

When he became a reservist, he attended the University of Alaska and working with his uncle Reggie Dangeli, a historian with the Alaska State Historical Commission. Eventually, he transferred to Washington state.

Matters came to a crisis when he got into a fight with another Staff Sergeant. “He said, ‘That’s the problem with you Indians,’ and of course he said effing Indians, so I smacked him up one side of his head.” At least partly because of the experience, Dangeli decided to leave the military, a move that cost him his university funding.

Finding himself in a well-paying but dead end job, Dangeli drifted towards Robert Boxley’s Seattle dance troupe and eventually apprenticed to him. He went through “a nasty divorce” due to his change of lifestyle, and headed “home to the Nass Valley to lick my wounds.”

The trip got sidetracked in Vancouver when he was asked to finish a pole in Woodland Park.

“I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It wasn’t a very nice chunk of wood, and I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. So I said, ‘If I do it, it won’t be mine. It will be a community project.'” Hiring ten youths, he finished the pole and celebrated its completion with a potlatch — and, in the process, discovered that he had found himself a community.

“It was such a sad little pole,” he says. “It had been stolen twice, spray painted and a chunk was taken off the side, and someone took a Louisville [baseball bat] to it. It was horrible. But I look at it in retrospect as a physical manifestation of where I was in that moment in time — just beat up and kind of sad. It ended up being something very beautiful — not necessarily the totem pole itself, although it’s still up there and humbling to look at, but because it represents a massive amount of growth. What I created was a community here in Vancouver.”

Lifting up my god-son mask

While carving the pole, Dangeli found studio space at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial. He remains there to his day, running a program called The House of Culture. At first, the program was a cooperative, through which artists passed like Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson, Henry Green, Simon Dick, and Lyle Campbell, as well as younger artists such as Ian Reid and Phil Gray.

More recently, The House of Culture has become a rental space, because “there were a couple of people who had abused the space because they were abusing themselves in their addiction,” as Dangeli explains the situation. Dangeli now shares the space with Woodlands artist Don McIntyre, and Mari Torizane, a Japanese master painter who works as Dangeli’s assistant. Space is also found from time to time for other artists, such as Ian Reid, whom Dangeli regards as a brother.

Such experiences have left him with a strong interest in collaboration. One such result can be seen on the west side of the Friendship Centre, where Dangeli recently painted a mural with Don McIntyre.

Dangeli now works in a variety of media, including stone carving, wood carving, jewelry making, painting, and sculpture. He works twelve to fourteen hours a day and completes 10-30 pieces per month.

“I love a bit of everything,” he says. “You get lost in what you’re working in, so there is no favorite medium. It’s whatever I’m working on. but I always have five of six projects on the go in various stages. You get bored with one and you want to pick up something else. but then the clock’s ticking on a couple of pieces, and you’ve got to get going on them.”

Ceremonial, commissioned, and commercial art

“What’s become really important to me is the performance and ceremonial part of our art,” Dangeli says. “You can ask every Northwest Coast artist, and they’ll tell you that some of the best carvers and west coast artists are the ones who have an understanding of ceremony. It’s a lot different than creating something for the galleries.”

Part of the difference is that a mask intended to be danced “needs the inside to be functional. It needs to be carved to the dimensions of the face of the person who’s wearing the mask.”

Another part is the “responsibility and rights and privileges that you learn by attending ceremonies and understanding them.”

However, the largest difference, Dangeli says, is the spirituality. “In our languages, masks were naxnox— ‘beyond human power.’ These naxnox embodied the wind, they embodied the spirits, and were able to connect us to that spirit world. There’s an understanding that if you don’t treat these naxnox right, they’ll bite you.

“And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen a guy who played around too much with a mask and he was dancing on stage at this one event, and he fell right off the stage. It was a good five foot drop. That was part of the mask saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate that.’ I’ve seen it happen in our own dance group. I’ve even had it happen to me.”

Another consideration is the stories that are told in ceremonial and commercial art. “With a lot of our naxnox, there’s an oral history that’s owned by families that I don’t have the right to go and use. There’s even traditions that belong to my family that I would never go and openly sell. When I do art for potlatching or for individuals who ask me for things that display their clan crest, there’s always a different price. I don’t ever charge the full price in these cases, because the best payment is having one of your pieces used. It’s more of an exchange” of services or goods or artwork.

By contrast, “when I’m doing things for a gallery, there are certain stories that are universal to everybody” that can be used instead. Dangeli suggests that this is not a limitation, so much as a situation that calls upon his ingenuity as an artist. He likens the distinction to his experience of dancing, where there are some dances that are not recorded and others that are brought out for public performance.

Dangeli acknowledges that other artists do not observe the same distinctions, but seems to feel that their choices are not his business. “I find it really sad when I see artists breaking those laws [about what can be publicly displayed], but it’s up to their elders, their chiefs and their matriarchs to put them back into line, not us as artists. Although there are some things you look at and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they did that.'”

These distinctions are increasingly easy for Dangeli to observe because, while he has had work in galleries, today, commissions and ceremonial work mean that he does not rely on the commercial art market to make his living. While he praises some galleries like the Eagle Spirit and the Leora Lattimer Gallery, and speaks of their owners with respect, he is concerned that meeting the galleries’ needs can be restrictive for artists.

In fact, in some cases, dealing with galleries can be “abusive,” he says. He recalls selling a drum and a mask to one gallery, and being told by the owner, “‘Now, don’t go drinking this all up in one spot.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t need this,’ and I ripped up the cheque and handed it back, and took my pieces.”

This experience was reinforced a few years ago by an incident online in which his building and launching of a canoe received condescending criticism from an academic, and others rallied around him.

“It was really wonderful having support from my own people, indigenous people, and people from museums from all over the place, and I let go of that final fear about what people think of my art. It’s none of my business. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I think [this attitude] has made me a better artist, and that taking on more commissions has helped me to focus on more personal items and concentrating more on things for potlatches. It’s wonderful to have that freedom, and I would wish it for every artist.”

Art and the community

Dangeli takes his role as an interpreter of his culture seriously. “There is a responsibility, because artists are our historians. They are people who are able to act as a conduit between our culture and our people to the outside world. They’re historians, they’re writers, they’re creators of things that will be used inside those ceremonies. So, yeah, there’s a lot of importance in being a leader and an artist.”

For Dangeli in particular, this responsibility and importance is augmented because he is heir to two chieftainships, one of which he grew up expecting to inherit and one which he has only recently become heir to. This situation, he says, “has affected me in wanting to convey more of my messages. And taking on that larger chieftainship means that I have more responsibilities, both financially and culturally. Financially in the way of making sure that I can get home to attend feasts and potlatches, culturally by being able to create things for my people. It has affected some of what I create and definitely the responsibility not to do anything embarrassing as well.”

Sunset

However, asked if artists help to restore pride to First Nations communities, Dangeli characterizes the idea as an outsider’s view. “I think that, as an outsider looking in, yeah, it could be construed that way. But are you being made aware of it because individual artists are opening your eyes to what’s going on inside those communities? Because, growing up and witnessing all these wonderful things happening within my community, there’s always been pride. There’s always been this sense of beauty and right and wrong and putting your best foot forward. A lot of artists, especially in the generation before mine, have all grown up with that responsibility.

“There’s a huge responsibility being an artists and growing up in that culture, which is why some artists choose not to be part of it. It is too much responsibility. Everyone always wants you to create things for some sort of giveaway or to do this or that. So there has to be a balance.” For instance, Dangeli will often repurpose a piece, or ask permission to make a print of an original painting, so that he can respond to a request without taking too much of his time. He cites Joe David and Beau Dick as two of the older artists who are models of how to find this sort of balance.

“We have a responsibility because we’re able to function in so many worlds, whether it be the white world, within the art world — and it’s not just the art world, it’s the First Nation’s art world as well — within our communities, culturally, and academically and with art historians. I’ve been able to walk in all these worlds, and been intimidated in all of them.

“I remember when Mique’l [his financee] had moved up here. I was looking through some of the readings she had to do for her Master’s in Art History, and I became worried because art historians analyze everything. And I was like, ‘Look, I was poor this month, and people will say, this is Mike Dangeli’s blue period because I didn’t have anything else but blue paint. That was part of my fear: Is what I’m doing now going to be analyzed and picked apart twenty, forty years down the line?. And that was something else I had to let go.”

But, for all the fears, the responsibilities, the obligations and the need for balance, Dangeli clearly remains committed to all that he has taken on. “I love what I do. It’s not a job, and it’s not a career –although it is both — it’s a passion. I absolutely love it. So to be able to have that opportunity to take what’s inside me, to make my thoughts tangible –”

He trails off for a second, then starts in a new direction.

“I’m able only to put out so much in thirty or forty years. That’s a short time in a person’s life. And I started this when I was a little older than most artists. I was 27 when I decided to become a professional artist. so I have a lot of catching up to do. And, at the same time, I’m grateful to be able to create art and to have people see value in it.”

Read Full Post »

(Note: Because the staff was unsure which exhibits the artists had given permission to photograph, I was unable to take pictures)

When I go to an art gallery, I come prepared to be pleased. Just as when I go to a movie or go to a book, I generally arrive with few expectations. I try to practice the concept that I should understand a work in its own terms, and not through the filter of expectations that I bring with me. Over the years, I have found that this approach has allowed me to appreciate things that I might otherwise have dismissed.

I mention my perspective because I have to report, very much against my wishes, that the new exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, “Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast” is a disappointment. The fact that it comes after the gallery’s first successful show that highlighted Bill Reid’s career, and shares space with the dazzling permanent collection of Reid’s jewelry only makes the show’s failure all the greater.

For the most part, the problem is not with the artists. True, a few of the artists chose to submit the physical equivalent of one-liners. For instance, Shawn Hunt’s “Trickster,” which shows Raven perched atop a can of clam chowder is amusing at first glance, with its reference to Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen (and also an indication of how Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” has altered the traditional story in modern minds, since the recorded historical versions mention a different type of shell). But, on second glance, what the incongruity means remains elusive. It seems only a poke at the commercialization of Northwest Coast art in a way that has already been done before. Personally, given the design ability displayed in Hunt’s Raven, with the grinning faces as part of the body and wing, I would far rather see what he does with less derivative work, especially since he is a relatively new artist.

A similarly limited work is Moy Sutherland’s “The Negotiator.” Sutherland, whose work I have often admired elsewhere, is not the first artist to add First Nations politics into his work. But where Charles Heit (Ya’Ya) rarely lost sight of his art and his comments had an angry wit to them. Sutherland’s use of Canadian flags, five dollar bills, and a dangling carrot is simply angry. It can be reduced to a single short sentence: He is angry with the people negotiating land claims on behalf of his nation. Any work that can be reduced to fourteen words, I submit, is not art at all, regardless of whether I sympathize with the sentiment, as I do with Sutherland’s.

However, the majority of the work exhibit present an interesting variety. In contrast to Sutherland’s work, Mike Dangeli’s “’Redemption’ Ridicule Mask” presents a much more complex reaction to the situation of the First Nations, using an old tradition to comment on contemporary politics.

Similarly, Ian Reid creates a new effect by placing Chilkat patterns and colors on a raven mask. He did so, he explained as an acknowledgement of Tlingit and Tsimshian women who introduced the Chilkat patterns into Heiltsuk society. At a time when many First Nations people are descended from multiple nations or are half European in ethnicity, he said, this acknowledgement seems particularly appropriate. The juxtapostion of two different traditional media more than justified Reid’s motivation, resulting in an arresting and original effect.

Dan Wallace also placed Chilkat patterns in a new medium by engraving them on his silver bracelet, “Remembering our Royalty.” Like Reid, Wallace emphasizes the importance of looking back at history while reflecting on the current situation, and, like Reid, produces a new artistic effect as he does so.

Other pieces worth seeing included a traditional Tsimshian mask and a stop-action video of its carving by Phil Gray, Sonny Assu’s graffiti-like canvas with its reds and pinks and grays, Dean Hunt’s traditional-looking mask “Pk’vs: Wild Man of the Woods,” and Aaron Nelson-Moody’s red cedar and copper panel “Copper Man.” Nor should I forget to mention the wealth textile works, such as Marianne Nicolson’s “Tunic for a Noblewoman,” done in memory of her grandmother; Krista Point’s untitled Salish blanket; Teri Rofkar’s “Tlingit Robe,” and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop’s “Dream of Dragonflies.” Individually, all these works were well-worth lingering over and returning for second and third and fourth looks.

The problem is, while most of the works in the exhibit stand on their own merits, they seem to add up to nothing as an exhibit. Part of the problem may be that the show seems to have changed directions, starting as an exhibit of young artists but transforming into an exhibit with the theme of the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional and adding older, more established artists. But, for whatever reason, the result is a seeming random collection of artists.

For all the obvious skill of individual artists, there seems no particular reason why these particular artists were chosen. Any of four or five dozen other artists could have been swapped in instead, and the impression left by the exhibit as a whole would not be significantly changed (As if in confirmation of this statement, after I left the exhibit, I saw Andrew Dexel, the graffiti artist, at one of the Aboriginal Days booths outside the Vancouver art gallery).

Another problem is that, with only one work allowed per artist at the most (one bracelet was the work of three), you have trouble appreciating anyone’s work. A quarter of the artists, and four or five works apiece would help visitors to gauge each artists’ range. Given the number of newer artists in the exhibit, that sort of context would have been welcome.

As things are, the result is that seeing “Continuum” is not much different from seeing the latest work at a commercial gallery. In fact, I have seen larger shows at commercial galleries, as well as chances to meet the artists that did not include a request for donations at the door.

Nothing is really wrong with such a show – I guess. But the Bill Reid Gallery is not a commercial gallery, and is obviously struggling to be something more. Its difficulty is that it is still struggling to define what that something else might be. In “Continuum,” I suspect it temporarily lost its way in academic critical jargon and posturing (if the catalog is any judge).

I can only hope that, with its next show, the Bill Reid Gallery returns to the success of its first show. If it does, then I will be happy to report the fact. Meanwhile, so far as “Continuum” is concerned, “disappointment” is the mildest word that I can honestly choose.

Read Full Post »