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Not all art is stolen - Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas

Art is about establishing emotionally complex and positive relationships
Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris September 2022. (Photo:supplied/Julien Brachhammer)

Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas is an internationally renowned visual contemporary Haida artist, author and previous chief councillor of the Masset Village Council.

Through his art, he explores themes of identity, environmentalism and the human condition communicating a worldview unique to the North Coast and Haida Gwaii.

His biography states his visual practice encompasses a variety of art forms, including large-scale public art projects, mixed media sculptures and canvases, re-purposed automobile parts, acrylics, watercolours, ink drawings, ceramics and illustrated publications.

The Northern View sat down with Michael to talk about his art and the influence First Nations art has on our society.

Yahgulanaas said in his more than 20-year art career, he often sees the central theme of hybridity emerge or evolve.

He believes it is a “pushback” or a question of the human species’ faith in a notion of “purity.”

“We see the darker side of it expressed as us versus them,” he explained, “yet if you look at the biology of the species, were are extremely diverse individuals. Purity doesn’t really exist in terms of ethnicity. Yet, we build empires on this notion of purity. Violence and assaultive behaviour are characteristic of that.”

He said the artwork he creates says that he doesn’t believe in that notion of purity.

“I believe that change is ever constant and diversity in all its manifestations is a good thing,” he explained.

Based on this thought process, he said hybridity is significant and speaks to his Haida and Northern European ancestry.

“I often say the fertility of a river reaches its greatest point when it becomes an estuary and is contacted with salt water. Everywhere we look around us, diversity and complexity are really the solutions to any range of problems or challenges we have.”

“Indigenous material culture” is how Yahgulanaas referred to First Nations art.

“It is one of the few aspects of Indigenous societies in the Canadian experience that hasn’t been fully consumed or assaulted, or commodified or seized as pretty well every other aspect of Indigenous identity has been.”

He believes society has come to a sobering realization where, collectively, under the federal and provincial governments, we need to do better.

“My point is that language and all the manifestations of culture, the sacred lives of children, community law, has been assaulted previous to Canada and consistent to the Canadian experience. Art seems to have been somewhat dealt with differently, certainly with the many stories of art being purchased or stolen over the years.”

When the production or creation of art is looked at, it is primarily still an activity centred in the communities of the various nations, he said, adding the caveat there are a couple of exceptions in the U.S. that he calls “cultural mimicry.”

A continuity of authenticity that is “quite lovely” exists in our nation, he said. However, giving examples of the Napoleonic times when wooden carts of Egyptian “booty” were pulled by hand back to France, he believes we still need to be mindful that art can be used as the spoils of war.

“So often, it is used as a trophy. But within Indigenous communities, art has a much more complex and less egregious function. For me, one of the things I’ve noticed is the Canadian vision of Indigeneity is often skewed to the fantastical. It can be fantastically horrid and aggressive and assaultive — it can also be fantastically pristine.”

He points out that there are extremes on either end of the monumental art spectrum, but there are also points of fusion.

“What is common is they deny the humanity of Indigenous people. They refuse to acknowledge that Indigenous people, like every other member of the species, are sons and daughters,” he said.

“That refusal to see the humanity of the other has allowed the violent assault that marks the Canadian relationship with Indigenous people.”

Yahgulanaas tries to create an emotional connection between people who may not have a deep knowledge of Indigenous culture or people. To do that, he said he stays away from using icons that have become so familiar such as weaving designs and ravens, eagles or orcas. However, he wants to make them accessible and he has found comics, graphic literature and manga is a medium that can breach a divide.

“The reason for that is regardless of language, ethnicity, education, economic status, geography, all humans are able to read graphic literature.”

As a descendant of artistic greats such as Isabella Edenshaw, Charles Edenshaw and Delores Churchill, the author had early training from creators and master carvers. He merged Haida and Asian influences to create his genre of Haida Manga.

“I wanted to make the work as accessible as possible so that people could find a different way to relate to Indigenous people, and so Indigenous persons, such as myself, could find a place to express a worldview in a more nuanced way.”

His experience of more than three decades in politics in Haida Gwaii has shown him that Canadian people are hungry to reconcile, and generally, “good Canadian citizens see the advantages of having a harmonious relationship with Indigenous communities.”

He relates a time when he was at a European conference with a small delegation of Haida representatives. Realizing he was the oldest member there and needed an objective, he called home and asked for some direction from the leadership.

He said he was told to make friends.

“If we make friends, then we can deal with the bigger challenges.”

At that point, the challenge was about cultural property in museums. The conversation has grown on this topic in recent months.

“There is a big conversation going on. Some people say it’s all stolen. I push back on that. I say no, you are doing a disservice to our ancestors if you say they were inadequate to make business sales. Some artwork is stolen. Much of the artwork was purchased.”

He said people can take oppositional positions and disagree vehemently. If you walk into a room in fight mode things are going to end up in a “bloody mess and someone going to get hurt,” he said.

“The way to deal with the big challenges is on the basis of familiarity and friendship. If you have a friendly relationship with somebody, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, when you walk into a room is you have a relationship. [That’s when] you can sit down, you can figure out what the challenge is.”

Art is about establishing emotionally complex and positive relationships.

“It is not an assaultive tool. It’s not a weapon. Art is a tool of peace. And this is the call to action right now in Canada. The rest of the world is looking at Canada. How do you reconcile?”

The problem with the word reconciliation is in its very definition. He said reconciliation is an act to bring two parties back together again or to rejoin, like after an argument or a divorce.

“What we are missing there is we are not actually talking about reconciling. We are talking about conciling. We are talking about treaties that have never been signed. We are not reconciling a broken treaty. We are actually doing it for the first time.”

Yahgulanaas said to imagine the first time someone gets to do something formally, legally, politically, economically or construct new relationships.

“If we had known the importance when we were young people and we were virgins, would we have had sex a different way? If we had known how important is it? This is the moment that is available to us right now. If we decide that Canadian and Indigenous citizens and governments, that we’re going to figure out how to do it better, it will be the first time in B.C. history.”

“It is a profound moment and art is part of getting to that place where we can decide we’d rather be friends and we can figure out how to do it and how to do it right.”

K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist
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