photos: Blanket Dance by Roxanne Charles. Photo by Edward Westerhuis.

‘Embracing our uniqueness as Salish people’

Arts Preview: Bill Reid Gallery exhibition, Intangible, features six artists whose work exhibits innovation and heritage.

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By Simon Cheung


Tracy Williams’ five-year-old daughter Avery has dibs on her mother’s mountain goat hoof shoes, so don’t bother asking. Those who want to check out Williams’ buckskin-based creation will find them on display—along with a pair made of fish skin leather, complete with moss insoles—at Intangible from Sept. 13 to Dec. 10 at the Bill Reid Gallery. The exhibition will showcase contemporary Coast Salish innovation and intergenerational Indigenous knowledge via six artists from the territory.

By the way, Avery has already worn (and danced) in the shoes, so her claim to them is pretty much unassailable. It’s also one of the sweetest examples of Coast Salish community culture embedded in all of Intangible’s exhibited pieces.

“A lot of things I do, they’re intended to be worn; they’re intended to be used; they’re meant for that purpose,” says Williams, who identifies herself as a Squamish mother and wife with a sustained interest in reclaiming ancient technologies and traditional knowledge.

“The real heart is in the practice of it, and in the continuation of that practice, and in embracing our uniqueness as Salish people. Because it’s beautiful ... it’s just beautiful.”

Fellow Intangible artist Roxanne Charles—who is studying toward a Master of Fine Arts at Simon Fraser University, and has two bachelor’s degrees (one in fine art and another in art history and cultural anthropology) for good measure— recognizes this same beauty in the intersection between art and community.

“In school you’re taught, ‘don’t make things beautiful,’ and, ‘art isn’t meant to be spiritual’—and I’m not there to listen to any of those rules,” Charles says. “Because for me, art is beautiful: in our singing, and our dancing, and our regalia.

And they don’t just serve one purpose.

“We’ve always had ceremonies, oral histories, and visual representation, and I see my role as documenting and exploring things through those means.”

Real heart
In Charles’ art, this tends to lead her headlong into current Indigenous issues.

She describes her work as reactive to a reality where many of the shared experiences of Indigenous communities are their similar struggles with colonial governments. For instance, Charles’ own Semiahmoo First Nation has been on a boil-water advisory since 2005 and has received notice that the City of White Rock may cut its water connection off completely by February 2018—challenges familiar to other Indigenous communities, including the high-profile Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario.

“It’s impossible to be born Indigenous in this country and not be political—it’s a luxury that we don’t really have,” says Charles. “Whether or not we’re a Coast Salish group of people or you’re a Cree group of people, we still have these violent systems in place that are universal across Canada.”

Williams agrees, identifying colonization as a central factor in Indigenous communities losing knowledge of and connection to the land.

“It’s been devastating to our way of life, and our way of knowing,” she says. “Residential schools have had a traumatic past. The city swallows our landscape and doesn’t value wild spaces, [and] when you don’t have a wild space, you don’t have plant diversity, either.

“What that tells us is that these animals and these plants can’t survive here—we’ve eliminated them from the landscape, with the exception of those that we’ve built sidewalks around. This is heartbreaking. This is sad. We should know this is sad. Because this is the state of our land.”

Art and life
There is a distinct, intertwined reverence and frustration when Charles and Williams speak of the beauty and troubles of their communities and cultures. It seems apparent as well that this duality is inherent in their art.

“It’s my lived experience,” Charles says. “It’s my daily life. It’s current issues. I think Indigenous communities are really emotion-based or relationship-based, and everything is relational to the environment, to the people, to place, to stories, to everything.”

Williams, drawing from her youth work at the Squamish Nation Education Department, feels that there may be a community desire to return to those relational elements: “There are so many people out there that long for land-based knowledge. They want to know. There’s lots of people out there that want to be able to escape the city and want to be able to be out on the land and just be free, even if it’s only for a few hours.”

Intangible’s guest curator Sharon Fortney—who holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of British Columbia and specializes in working with Coast Salish communities—says she has noticed that since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, there has been increased mainstream and government attention and dialogue regarding Indigenous issues.

“You’re seeing more funding available now for Indigenous curators in the museum sector,” Fortney, who is of Klahoose and German ancestry, offers as an example. “So you’re going to start seeing different perspectives and voices come to the forefront more.”

“There’s a lot of strength there now, too—a lot of people [are] really engaging in their culture and sharing it with younger generations,” Fortney adds.

Persevering culture
Charles has seen this shift as well.

“I’ve shed a lot of tears,” she says. “But a lot of them are tears of, ‘Finally. We’re discussing this. Finally this is being acknowledged. Finally some steps are being taken to deal with this.’ I think that’s where the hopefulness comes from, because there was maybe a long time when there wasn’t so much.”

Fortney observes that this revitalization of culture and dialogue appears to be occurring after a period in the 20th century where Coast Salish culture faded from public awareness.

“We had a lot of prohibitions through our own laws related to the Indian Act about what activities people could and couldn’t do—how they could dress, what they could look like in public, when and where they could gather,” she explains, “[And] one of the things that newcomers seemed to really glom on to in Vancouver and other urban areas was [Kwakwaka'wakw] totem poles.

“It caused an art market where local artists had to conform to that style of carving to be economically viable.”

Meanwhile, 20th-century museum collectors removed Coast Salish-style artifacts like house posts for their exhibitions, requiring Coast Salish youth to travel to museums across Canada and the United States just to reconnect with their own art.

“It kind of erased that memory a little bit,” Fortney says. “They’re out of community and out of sight. So what are young people seeing? They go to residential school; they come home to the city; they see totem poles.”

Intangible’s artists, however, have all pursued teachings from wide networks of relatives across the sprawling Coast Salish territory and the land itself—which stretches from northern Oregon up to B.C.’s Bute Inlet, and is home to more than 70 Indigenous communities. Fortney says the six artists were selected because they are all well-versed in Coast Salish designs and traditions, and are pushing new directions in themes and mediums.

Williams certainly embodies this sensibility toward cultural immersion and innovation: her motivation, she confesses, stems from engaging in ceremonies and understanding natural resources, rather than gallery shows.

“I don’t usually do exhibits—not very often,” Williams says. “A lot of times if you’re looking for me, you’re going to have to look for me up in the mountains, especially depending on what time of year it is. I don’t sell myself a lot. A lot of the type of work that I’m doing is in communities.”

Fortney says that this community element in Intangible enriches the artists’ work with a cultural expansiveness that transcends the gallery space. Programming features and in-person appearances are planned—along with a film collaboration with SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology featuring the artists—to add context to the works presented.

Of the other artists featured, Aaron Nelson-Moody, whose Squamish name is Tawx’sin Yexwulla (and known to friends as “Splash”), hails from Capilano Village and combines oral history with his current focus on repoussé and jewelry engraving. Marvin Oliver, a Quinault/Isleta-Pueblo artist renowned for large-scale mixed-media sculptures, will present blown-glass spirit board and fish basket works never before seen in Vancouver.

Best known for his screen-printed works, lessLIE from the Cowichan tribes will be presenting pieces that use humour and irony to explore the appropriation of imagery and deconstruct corporate logos. And, born in the Sto:lo territory and carrying with him prolific experiences in film and hip-hop, Ronnie Dean Harris (known as Ostwelve), will continue to share his journey of self, place, and family discovery with a multimedia installation.

At Intangible, Charles plans on working in person on prayer hoops that explore feelings of loss over opioid-related deaths and the fentanyl crisis. This will, she hopes, create opportunities for conversation and mutual learning.

“We can know that these issues are happening, and that these suicide epidemics are happening,” Charles says. “But most people don’t have a personal access point to that: to understand the emotional impacts or what that’s like, this accumulation of grief over time.

“You never know how good looking they were, or how amazing they were, until you see it.”

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