Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art Paperback – Illustrated, 30 Apr 2008
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"The text ranges from poems to creation myths to an essay about repatriating the bones of ancestors from museums around the world. But the eye can't keep from drifting to the photographs." - Globe & Mail "The true Canadian art buff wouldn't be without [Raven Travelling, a book that] presents fresh ways to look at well-loved aspects of the nation's art. - [A] newsy beauty with brains." - The Calgary Herald
About the Author
Daina Augaitis has been Chief Curator/Associate Director at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada since 1996. She has edited anthologies and written numerous catalogue essays and articles. She lives in Vancouver. Peter Macnair is former Curator of Anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, a post he held for more than thirty years. He is widely recognized for his knowledge of the art and history of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Contributors include: Lucille Bell, Vince Collison, Robert Davidson, Bill Reid, Guujaw and Isabel Rorick
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The title of both exhibit and book refer to a cycle of Haida myths starring the irrepressible and irreverent Raven. The Haida are ancient island dwellers indigenous to northwest British Columbia (and more recent migrants to even more northerly islands which lie within Southeast Alaska). The Haida were and are exceptional artists, painters, sculptors, weavers, and architects of monumental long-houses and totem poles. Their woodworking technology and stewardship over giant red cedar trees allowed them to craft swift and capacious sea-going canoes.
Their culture and artwork at first flourished through contact with the Euroamerican newcomers, were then devastated by smallpox and cultural-religious-economic imperialism, and--still more remarkably, testifying to the enormous resilience and strength of spirit of the Haida people (and their allies among the newcomers)--have rebounded to earn renewed acclaim.
The ancient homeland of Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands to us newcomers) is becoming an eco-tourist destination, even as the Haida fight efforts to log off the remaining old-growth forest cover.
The exhibit brings together over 300 pieces of formline-carved, painted, and woven objects (and occasional, more-geometrically decorated weavings) fashioned over more than two centuries of Haida artistic production. One can view masks and fragile argillite pipes collected by New England sea captain in the early 1800s, bracelets and model totem poles traded to early tourists and pioneering ethnologists, powerfully-symbolic "coppers" and provocative manga graphic art, most of superb quality, often as fresh as the day they left the maker's hands, gathered from a host of prestigious museum collections and knowledgeable private enthusiasts, and cunningly arranged.
The Vancouver mounting of the exhibit is not flawless, though the selection and sequence of the pieces is hard to fault. The main problem is lighting: several magnificent, bentwood bowls displayed in one corner are poorly lit; the design on one of two arrogant coppers is difficult to discern behind distracting reflections; many beautiful engraved gold or silver bracelets, pendants, and rings could benefit from some means of magnification, so their fine details could be appreciated; an enormous carved chest from the hands of the "Chicago Settee Master" is mounted so that one of its two carved and painted faces is impossible to inspect; and an entire case of carvings and engravings from the "Silent Era" of legally-imposed repression and displacement lacks any lighting at all!
These are quibbles, however: anyone with even the mildest interest in native culture or any art originating outside that of the European mainstream will find endless beauty and fascination in this show.
Highly commendable is the effort throughout to treat the artists--whether past or present--as individual and, in many cases, identifiable persons, each with his or her own biography, history, and motivations, rather than to treat the masters behind the art as anonymous, faceless, and generic "tribal crafts-people."
As my title for this review indicates, the "Raven Travelling" book makes a fine companion volume to this superb exhibit, but it too has its drawbacks. For those who have some minimal prior acquaintance with this art and culture, too many of the otherwise-interesting articles are recycled, including several previously-published essays by artist Bill Reid and a commentary by artist Robert Davidson (both incomparable artists, whose esthetic and philosophical viewpoints are arresting and engaging).
While the photographs, both those of the exhibited pieces and the archival photographs of people and places, are marvelous indeed, many of the archival photos have, likewise, been repeatedly reproduced before. While these arguably-"redundant" photos are as meritorious as the "recycled" essays (and frequently subserve the admirable aim of individuating the artists), and while a case can certainly be made for seizing this opportunity to make them accessible to a wider audience, their inclusion comes at some cost: this attractive volume is NOT a complete catalog and does NOT, therefore, serve to fully memorialize the exhibit from which it springs.
And this would be my chief complaint: while "exhibit catalog" perhaps sounds like a drier, more-scholarly, and less-appealing tome than does "coffee-table" photo-essay display volume, it seems to me that--with sufficient care and thought--and a little less recycling of contents, this book could have admirably served both functions. Once this exhibit has been seen in all its venues over the next year or so, it will be--for most purposes--gone for good unless appropriately memorialized. Those of us who have the good fortune of encountering the exhibit will be able to revisit it in memory, but many others--who might have "viewed" the exhibit over and over again through a comprehensive catalog--will now never have that opportunity.
Perhaps there ought to be a law! Somewhere, in the back of an otherwise-commendable book such as this one, ALL the pieces exhibited should be listed, giving appropriate collection data and provenance, in whatever minute font economy might dictate, with at least one well-chosen and well-lit b/w "glamor" photo of EACH and EVERY exhibited piece (again, not in full-page spread, but at whatever size adequately rewards detailed inspection while still accomodating printing costs).
Though this is not that ideal volume, it remains a magnificent and rewarding introduction to Haida art and culture. Despite the pieces and information that are missing, what it does include is incomparable (and, in at least a few cases, such as the hard-to-view copper, which appears in a clear color photo in the book, makes up for the exhibit's mounting gaffes).
Peter MacNair's meditation on the art and the artists of the 19th Century is a thorough and valuable resource, prepared by one of the five or six pre-eminient scholars of this art-style, and would be worth the price of the entire volume as a stand-alone, lavishly-illustrated essay. (Again, though, I have one quibble: an interior house post, knowledgeably-attributed to the "Chicago Settee Master" by prior scholars, is here identified in a photo caption as the work of Paul Jones, who is in prior scholarly work identified as the owner of the house, but not as the artist who carved the pole--traditionally, these would rarely have been the same individual. Elsewhere in his text, MacNair discusses the "Chicago Settee Master" and his distinctive style in some detail. I was left wondering whether house-owner Jones and the "Chicago Settee Master" have now been determined to be one and the same, or whether objects previously-attributed to the CSM are now being re-attributed to two different carvers.)
Again, these are the veriest quibbles. "Raven Travelling" is a sumptuous resource; even the quality of ink, paper, and printing are of the highest--in fact, I have heard it rumored that once the initial print run has sold out, it may not be economically-feasible to publish further editions.
So, snap up this magnificent volume while you can!
It turns out that there's no better way to learn about Haida art than from the people who are, against all odds, still making it. Academic assessments have their place, and the essay included here by Peter Macnair serves that purpose well, but far more engaging are the visions, insights, and hopes of the Haida artists themselves. Robert Davidson does a convincing job of explaining why it is so important to reclaim cultural identity and dignity through the arts. Nika Collison emphasizes the theme of mutual dependence between people, land, art and myth. I was shocked to learn from her essay that after the devastations of the epidemics that began in the 1860's there were only 600 Haida people left alive in 1915. Resurrecting and sustaining the art and traditions after such destruction has been a daunting task.
Much was lost, but something grand remained. The contemporary artists represented in this book carry the legacy of that grandeur in their hearts and their hands. They do what they can to protect, nurture and recreate the legacy, and to continue it upon their ancestral lands. The visual dialect of the ancient forms expresses an enduring and inspirational spirit, and the dynamic tensions of the contemporary work reveals determination to honor tradition as well as willingness toward expansion and innovation.
There is an urgency in the written texts--the importance of preserving the language and the art, the ceremonies and the traditions, comes clear. The essay from the legendary artist Bill Reid expresses this urgency in exemplary fashion, and his amazing carvings tell the story symbolically. The major theme that runs through all of the texts is: Art is inseparable from culture and culture is inseparable from the land.
The book does much to illustrate the great achievements and great challenges of the Haida people. It is at once informative and deeply moving, and it's beautifully put together, with over 140 color plates and quite a few archival photographs. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in Northwest Coast people and their art.
Haida art is recognized throughout the world as being the foremost expression of North American tribal expression. This book does an exceptionally fine job of collecting some of the finest Haida art, and placing it in the context of Haida life, geography and experience. The photographs, presentation and paper are of the very best quality, and in my collection of 500+ tribal art books, this is one of the finest covering North American Indian art..