Bridging the divide
Contemporary Squamish and Coast Salish art exhibit makes us reconsider the meaning of art
Justin Mah, Associate Staff Contributor
Stitúyntm Enduring Traditions: Historic and Contemporary Squamish and Coast Salish Art is exhibited at the West Vancouver Museum (680 17th Street and Esquimalt, West Vancouver) until August 31. Admission by donation.
Having grown up in East Vancouver, when I visited West Vancouver’s quaint and entirely unpretentious cultural distric tucked away in Ambleside, I was utterly bewildered by the area’s cleanliness (finding a piece of litter was like trying to find the elusive scroll in a Where’s Waldo book). Litter deficiency aside, a visitor will find a comprehensive collection of Coast Salish art at the West Vancouver Museum and Archives. Entitled Stitúyntm Enduring Traditions: Historic and Contemporary Squamish and Coast Salish Art, this exhibit focuses on Salish art traditions — deflating the commonly held perception that the Northwest Coast is culturally homogenous.
Comprised in fact by divergent regional styles, the show endeavours to represent these subtleties to outsiders by acquainting them with the deeper significances of Coast Salish culture. For instance, unlike their Northern tribal neighbours, the Haida, who are known for their iconic totem poles, the Salish, alternatively, are recognised for their welcome posts. Vetted through the authority of the Squamish elders and co-curated by Deborah Jacobs, director of education for the Squamish Nation, it sets a precedent: the exhibit is an inclusive one, and, as such, attempts to shift the museum into an arena not only for cultural preservation, but also as a felicitous outlet for self-representation by people traditionally marginalised in museum space. “Having [Squamish and Coast Salish] history be available and to give voice to it in an exhibition like Stitúyntm Enduring Traditions is really significant for citizens to have an appreciation of [Squamish and Coast Salish life] . . . [there is] the need to coexist in a community, the need to really know our roots, and the need to have more peaceful and harmonious relationships with each other as neighbours,” says Jacobs.
Interestingly, there is no word for art in the Salish language; xal (to mark) is the closest the language comes. According to Barbara Brotherton of the Seattle Art Museum, “[xal] expresses making a mark, of altering, changing, or transforming what merely exists into something of sublime beauty and meaning.” As such, many of the items on display — from mountain-goat-wool blankets, to spindle whorls, to coiled cedar root baskets — serve a functional and/or ceremonial purpose in addition to being visually appealing. “Coast Salish art is very much interwoven within the fabric of our life,” explained Jacobs. Not only do these handcrafted works, imbued with their maker’s love, stand in sharp contrast to the machine-manufactured world, but they serve as palpable memory for the Salish whose history has been carried on through these sacred objects and the oral stories which accompany them, passed on from storyteller to storyteller, generation to generation.
Then there are more contemporary, critical pieces on display, such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s acrylic on canvas piece, Mother Earth and Child (2006), where two blue and sickly human figures, constituted of traditional forms, traverse awkwardly through an alien (ie. Western) landscape, expressing the woes of the aboriginal people with solemn urgency. Aptly described by Robert Linsley in his essay “Painting and the Social History of British Columbia,” “Paul transforms the dreamlike redemptive hope in Emily Carr’s painting into the real-life nightmare grotesque of the present, but he also offers a truth . . . that the land is inhabited by living, though suffering, human subjects, and that this is finally the root from which all hope grows.”
I have described just a few of the cultural art objects on display at the West Vancouver Museum and Archives, items which, like the exemplary abstract expressionist paintings of the ‘50s, demand that a corporeal confrontation take place between subject and object if a meaningful exchange is to ever make itself available.
For many (I am thinking of the typical SFU student), West Vancouver is perceived as some far, distant place. But like the distressingly truncated perceptions that continue to be applied to aboriginal cultures, only after we make the trek ourselves and open up to the array of cultural nuances around us, can we truly appreciate our own unique station in this multifaceted world.
(Published in The Peak July 9, 2007. 126/10)