B.C.’s Haida manga artist plays against type
It’s not yet noon, the shops have only been open an hour, but there’s already been a scuffle in front of Coach. Spurred by the promise of a 70 per cent discount on designer purses, one eager customer hipchecked a woman ahead of her in line as she muscled through the doors. Terse words were exchanged. Security intervened. Disapproving Tweets and arms-crossings ensued.
The people of Richmond hadn’t packed themselves into sweaty lineups under the scorching July sun for nothing. They wanted to be among the first to set foot inside the Whistler-esque McArthurGlen Retail Outlet, the new luxury mall-within- a-village near Vancouver International Airport. They’d arrived on the promise of bargains, and they’d come prepared for battle. Beyond the crowds lay the lure of discount Coach luggage, J. Crew casuals, Hugo Boss denim. The thick, hot stench of manure fertilizing the surrounding Fraser Valley farmland set the scene. It was a remarkable study in contrasts.
Amidst the Richmond mayor, local MLA, MP, and moneyed assortment of real estate developers and CEOs in attendance, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas stood in the shade. Dressed casually compared to the suits and stilettos hounding him for photo ops, he seemed the least likely among them to flip the racks in search of Calvin Klein rarities.
He was there to unveil his latest piece of public art, a 3,8000-kilogram sculpture titled SEI, named for the second-last baline whale in the world. Twelve metres long and made of highly polished stainless steel, SEI is the project of Y Public Art, a public art and design company Yahgulanaas founded with designer Barry Gilson.
The sculpture depicts a whale breaching the water, and the reflective surface invites viewers to see themselves and the surrounding environment in the work. A granite and marble plinth in the central plaza of a luxury mall may seem like an unlikely place for such an installation, but for Yahgulanaas, it makes sense. The 60-year-old visual artist and author has made it his life’s work to bring disparate ideas, culture, and people together.
Known for authoring and illustrating the 2009 mural installation and graphic novel Red: A Haida Manga (reprinted by Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre in fall 2014), he has been working, for decades, from a perspective of conciliation. He has dedicated years of his life to building bridges between communities—across settlers and colonizers, across class, and across cultures.
In the middle of the luxury mall where real estate developers are clamouring to shake his hand, he speaks frankly and passionately about decolonization. He seems unbothered by the madness of the day.“Isolation only creates intolerance,” he tells me.
“One of the feelings I have about local governance is everybody should serve a term. If everybody was required, at some point of their life, to make some contribution, we would fracture the elite.”
A foot in two worlds
Yahgulanaas has been working as a visual artist for only 13 years. Before that time, he spent over 20 years in local governance on Haida Gwaii, where he grew up on and off reserve in Masset.
“As a young person, I was very aware of the concept of hybridity because I’m a hybrid person myself,” he says. He is of Scottish and Haida ancestry. “I could see the way people were treated who were dark-skinned and dark-haired and dark-eyed. My cousins were treated differently than I was treated because I’m green-eyed and fair-complexioned.”
He wanted to address the injustices he witnessed daily from living with a foot in two worlds. “I realized I could be moved quite easily into the world of green-eyed, fair-complexioned people, and I could also work in the world of brown-eyed, darker-complexioned people... I really felt like a gateway.”
To move fluidly through two cultures was a privilege, he says, and also an obligation; he saw it as his duty to work towards equality for Haida people, for the side of him that was also marginalized and discriminated against.
Yahgulanaas’s Haida grandfather was a village hereditary leader. He appointed a young Yahgulanaas to sit on a community legal aid board, one of only two in B.C. at the time. “I was probably about 24, 25 years old when I got that first appointment,” he recalls. He held various elected positions in the years that followed working, as he describes it, “in a community based struggle to protect the relationship between us and our land.” He was elected Chief Councillor of the Old Masset First Nation in the early 1990s and was involved in creating the Gwaii Trust, an islands-wide community endowment.
“As a young person, I was very aware of the concept of hybridity because I’m a hybrid person myself. I could see the way people were treated who were dark-skinned and dark-haired and dark-eyed. My cousins were treated differently than I was treated because I’m green-eyed and fair-complexioned.”
“One of the feelings I have about local governance is everybody should serve a term,” he says. “If everybody was required, at some point of their life, to make some contribution, we would fracture the elite.”
He left political life at 47, when “I just looked at it one day and realized it’s done,” as he puts it. “There came a point when I thought, there’s a structure, it’s up and running, it’s extremely democratic but it’s very embedded in the community. This isn’t an Indian Act vehicle...this isn’t someone else’s definition. This is a community definition and essentially, it’s a consensus- driven government and it’s really powerful.”
Yahgulanaas started his artistic career later in life relative to other visual artists. But in 13 years of producing art, he’s exhibited his work in public spaces, museums, and private collections around the world. The British Museum, the City of Vancouver, and the 2010 Olympics have all commissed his metalwork. He’s also published 12 books.
“It’s critical to my [art] practice to have had those experiences first,” Yahgulanaas says of his formative years in politics. The experience imbues his artwork with an intellectual curiosity borne of a lifetime of working against the grain. “I didn’t want to just take standard Indigenous art forms and replicate it, where we might just say, ‘Yes, I understand what I’m looking at.’ I wanted to push it,” he says.
“The construction of imagery that we would say that is Indigenous art, to some extent, is manipulated by market forces,” he continues. “This is an economic activity as much as it is an artistic and intellectual activity. One of the things that I often wondered about was, when the object is presented in the village as part of our lives, it has a set of meanings and a richness of emotional experiences and connections. It’s part of a community. When you take that object out of a community and place it somewhere else, does it contain the same meanings and how do those meanings change?”
He pauses. Our interview is interrupted several times by television crews and CEOs eager to drop him their business cards. Their assistants snap photos of them together on their smartphones. I think it’s obnoxious. Yahgulanaas doesn’t seem to mind. His approach to the artwork they’ve come tosee is reflected in his personal philosophy.
“Life is totally a diverse, complex system of multiple parts. That’s why I talked about this huge mammal,” he says, gesturing to the steel whale sculpture. “It requires krill to survive. The relationship between this huge thing and that little thing is a lesson that we need to have these relationships. It’s not just all whales sticking together and doing their own little thing. They have to have a relationship to that which is around them.”
I feel like a fish out of water at McArthurGlen. For Yahgulanaas, the jarring commercial spectacle is part of why he’s here.
“Biocultural diversity is about the relationship between people and place, things that are different, acknowledging that they’re different, and accepting that our definition of what we want it to be isn’t always true,” he explains to me.
“We have to be willing to accept that that object over there is profoundly different, but profoundly important.”
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