First Nations artists face unique experiences with regard to arts education, professional acceptance, and credentialing — both from within their Native cultures, and from without. To illustrate my point, I offer the examples of three well-known First Nations artists, all of whom have professional representation through Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, BC. Both Susan Point and Rick Rivet have pieces in prestigious, international collections, and Marika Swan is steadily building her portfolio and collector base.
Despite many honors and benefices from the academy, the renowned Coast Salish artist, Susan A. Point is a self-taught artist. She inherited the values of her culture, and the traditions of her people, from her mother, who had learned them from her mother. Point’s uncle, an anthropologist at UBC, encouraged her to investigate traditional Coast Salish art forms, blending colours and exploring techniques such as foil embossing, paper casting, linocut printing and lithography. What followed were years of independent research, tracking Coast Salish artifacts to museum holdings across the globe. “All that I am, as an artist, arose from my ancestors,” she says. “The great Salish artisans of many generations ago were my teachers. As I studied their works in museums and collections around the world I learned, and am still learning, the deepest nature of Salish art and what it means to be Salish.”
It could be said that Susan Point almost singlehandedly brought the profile of Coast Salish art and design back from the brink. Coast Salish artistic identity was facing imminent cultural extinction; oblivion threatened via the widespread, popular ignorance of the subtle, elegant design traditions, characteristic of Coast Salish aesthetics. “Coast Salish art is relatively unknown to most people today… I am trying to revive traditional Coast Salish art – and also attempting to educate the public to the fact that there was, and still is, another style of art indigenous to the Northwest Coast.” This graceful design vocabulary is best seen in functional art, like spindle whorls and other household artifacts, forms that Point has resurrected in decidedly non-traditional, typically Western media and materials.
Executed to a spectacularly grand scale, the results are often visually stunning, as evident in her pieces for looming public spaces like airports and conference hall atriums. Point began creating this massive-scale, three-dimensional art in materials such as glass, bronze, wood, concrete, polymer, stainless steel and cast iron in the 1990s. The world’s largest spindle whorl greets airline passengers arriving in Vancouver. Set against the dramatic background of a two-storey waterfall, it depicts flight with images of an eagle and a man with upraised arms.
Marika Echachis Swan is a Tla-o-qui-aht woman who was born in a hereditary West Coast whaling community. Her mother, Paula Swan, is a photographer and painter who found her main inspirations in the natural world. Swan’s father, Joe David, a master carver and painter, is heavily influenced by the rich and abiding Tla-o-qui-aht culture and his traditional spiritual practices. Both of Swan’s parents nurtured the emerging artist in their midst from a very young age, determining that Swan’s matriculation and heritage as an artist would also occur through the traditional means of being passed down through the family line.
Swan’s art education has progressed through collaboration and collectivist art practice, often with master printmakers and graphic artists. Her greatest mentor and influence is Tania Willard, who originally introduced her to printmaking. Many of the prints she created for her iconic Becoming Worthy series were printed with Jeremy Crowle, on Galliano Island. In all of her commissions, Swan edifies by promoting Indigenous cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic values. Swan haunted the Native art scene in Vancouver in her youth, listening to stories of Native communities and learning the importance of collective healing through art and ceremony – what she calls, “the power of coming together in a circle.” Her art practice includes elements of arts activism, “I believe in a deeply profound relationship with the land that I come from and a responsibility to it’s survival, health, and freedom.” She explains her sense of duty to support healing and empowerment among her people, through art, in communal, ceremonial terms: “I find great fulfillment in creating space for our people to explore their creativity so that when we seek justice, our voices are strong.”
The art Rivet creates is directly connected with the shamanic/spiritual tradition, derived from the belief systems of a common, ancient, human heritage. Rivet’s interest in shamanic, Aboriginal art became particularly strong after he finished his B.F.A. degree at the University of Victoria in 1980, where he worked closely with Pat Martin Bates, among others. Previously, his training had exclusively focused on Western art history and art, with virtually no mention of Native and Shamanic art history or art practice. He felt the need to look into the Native side of his heritage in conjunction with the European elements. The strong ethnological / anthropological influence in Rivet’s art derives from extensive research into the shamanistic beliefs, rituals and traditions of diverse aboriginal peoples, specifically Aleut, Inuit, Navajo, Dene, Cree, Hopi, and Sami. He has also studied Eurasian shamanist traditions among Siberian cultures, such as the Chukchi, Goldi, Buryat, and Evenki, reflecting socio-cultural concerns raised during his M.F.A. program at the University of Saskatchewan (1983-1995).
For Rick Rivet, the nature-oriented belief system and ideology of shamanism constitutes a sustainable and holistic world-view. “Shamanism promoted the viewpoint of living in harmony with the earth, as opposed to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea of mankind’s dominion over the earth and all its creatures.” His painting explores the role of particular imagery, rituals and ceremonial objects, such as string games, masks, drums, ceremonial garb, burial mounds, medicine wheels, totemic images, talismans, symbols, design, pictographs, petroglyphs, and other icons. To Rivet, these traditional, visual references give a “face and a voice” to the sacred narratives and alternative ideologies of native cultures.