Any discussion of Rande Cook’s art practice needs to consider his First Nations roots, and his relationship with the contemporary Western art community and market. Almost any question would lead to a discussion of his place between his First Nation background and the economic success of his career.
Rande Cook is from the Kwa Kwa Kawakw Nation, between Cormorant Island and Bella Coola on the coast of the mainland. His ancestral family lives in Alert Bay. He lives in Victoria, where, unlike many artists, he is able to support his young family through his art.
Cook’s responded to my question with a discussion of art on view at Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria. Two untitled bracelets reflect the shift from the conventional way of seeing First Nations art to one that is even more traditional and spiritually significant for him. The bracelets are the same basic shape but one is exclusively sterling silver while the other is primarily mountain sheep horn. The European introduction of silver to northwest cultures was responsible for both rapid evolution and a blunting of his ancestors’ creativity. So, as beautiful and sophisticated as it appears, the silver bracelet represents a static consciousness, a colonial sensibility.
In contrast, the horn bracelet looks more primitive and older. Its shape and form reveal the nature of the horn and the origin of the silver one. He carved this from horn he found in the mountains of Coromant Island and preserved in a traditional manner. Its decoration consists of simple scratching, highlighted with a brown pigment. The design seems less sophisticated but more modern than the rational decoration of the silver bracelet. The design can be viewed from any perspective, with each providing a different set of symbols. There is no positive or negative space, the whole surface being an activated field, in both an ancient and modernist sense. The small circular gold inlay in the centre suggests the presence of European culture surrounded by the many First Nations cultures.
However, Rande Cook pointed out that he is not a purist or an ultra- traditionalist; he happily embraces all cultures. He believes his community needs to be even more open to outside influences. A semi-abstract carved and painted yellow cedar panel exemplifies his attitude. This bas-relief is part of a long series of narrative images he is working on. However, more important, its shapes, composition, energy and colours are experimental, hesitant and modernist, a deliberate manipulation and abstraction of traditional form-line. The pose of the figure reflects non-Western origins, possibly with the Egyptians. The colours are modernist.
Cook’s art is made without preliminary sketches. He draws his ideas freehand directly on the yellow cedar and begins to carve immediately. The final painting stage is done the same way. He employs no templates. A ruler is used only for straight lines. This working process contradicts the exactness of his final pieces. This design and craft control points to his apprenticeship with master carvers for six years.
In his final response to my question, Rande Cook spoke of the importance of his family and community to his identity as a person and artist. He is the only artist of his generation to live outside his ancestral home. However as a hereditary chief he returns often; he takes his responsibilities seriously. He encourages his ancestral language and he accepts that the ceremonies, rituals and long house protocol be as accurate as possible. Reflecting this, as an artist he makes a clear distinction between art objects that he sells and sacred objects that he makes for the longhouse that are sometimes rarely seen, even in his community.
665 Fort Street Victoria British Columbia V8W 1G6