There is an animus infusing contemporary Native art. It is ancient and new, fierce and comical. It is Trickster, a timeless archetype with a global diffusion, though its forms vary from culture to culture. Primarily, across borders of culture and ethnicity, it acts as a gentle goad to social evolution — a kind of ‘gentler, kinder’ cultural revolutionary force. The ‘Trickster movement’ in contemporary Native art represents a bloodless, ideological coup going on beneath the surface of current events, erupting only occasionally in populist expressions such as the international wildfire of guerilla ‘actions’ operating under the banner of ‘Idle No More.’ Taking place last summer after an inaugural action at the Hudson’s Bay company headquarters in London, these were non-violent protests and demonstrations utilizing a wide array of arts media to make their unified point. Indigenous people worldwide stood in powerful, symbolic unity to resist political and corporate theft, appropriation, exploitation and graft.

According to co-curator and participating artist, LessLIE, what unites the four exhibiting artists is the way they challenge notions of contemporary Northwest coast art, and the dichotomy between traditional and contemporary art, as well as what’s considered marketable: “I think there’s this thing in the contemporary Northwest coast First Nations art scene, where there are these coffee-table books describing the legends, with these really technically proficient pieces polished in the books. I think that’s great and has profound cultural value, but at the same time, there hasn’t been much in the way of critical discourse …that challenges people’s static notions of contemporary Northwest coast art.”

To remedy this conundrum, his piece titled, ‘Idle No More,’ was also reproduced as part of a ‘public intervention,’ and displayed in bus shelters in downtown Victoria during the run of the exhibition. The image represents a spindle whorl design, with a radius of eyes symbolizing the spectrum of different visions, and a central, common mouth representing the current, unified expression of First Nations people. Like the ‘Occupy Movement,’ ‘Idle No More’ shows no signs of going away any time soon, but promises to re-ignite in the coming spring months. The grassroots, spontaneous flash flood of political solidarity shared among Indigenous peoples last summer is evoked through this image and serves to keep the movement’s credo simmering in the public’s imagination. Another of LessLIE’s images displays a sort of inverse appropriation; the little Starbucks double tailed mermaid seems to peer out from the painted surface of a traditional Native drum, but traditional Coast Salish motifs of salmon and spindle whorl design characterize this Northwest Coast version of the icon appropriated by Starbucks to its corporate trademark. She is actually Freya Nerthus, the ‘Fish Tailed Aphrodite’ of the Nordic pantheon. Images of this double tailed mermaid/goddess can be seen on medieval cathedral door lintels, like smiling ‘Sheelagh-na-gigs’ another pagan icon mysteriously included in early Christian decorative programs. In fact, it’s a feminine, Tricksterish archetype with more-or-less global diffusion. Historic Northwest Coast spirituality also venerated such a figure. Traditionally worked, Northwest Coast, tribal versions adorn house lintels throughout B.C. coastal areas.

Frances Dick is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. Images of Kawadelekala (the supernatural wolf who became the first ancestor of the Kingcome people) frequent her contemporary works, an acknowledgement of her ties to a rich, cultural heritage. Frances is an initiated Hamatsa, the name for a mystical secret society and its members, that requires that its initiates endure a ‘walking in the wilderness,‘ alone, taking nothing with them but the clothes on their back. “Yet further, as a modern day Hamatsa, in my life I was stripped of all that by which I measured my worth. I was without home, money, vehicle, family. All that I found comfort and solace in, I lost. All I had was me. The challenge was to find worth in Self, not defined by people, places, or things….” Her contributions to the ‘Urban Thunderbirds’ exhibit include a series of visual deliberations on adaptations and responses to a White world — its aesthetics, appearances and manifestations

Rande Cook’s contributions ranged across media dramatically, including the titular ‘Urban Thunderbird,’ the mythical being here represented as the Trickster and Redeemer, Raven, rendered in a wood carving as part of a towering, mixed media installation. Besides large scale acrylic paintings, he included a series of performative photographs documenting his interventions into bastions of Western culture and ideology wearing a beautiful, traditionally stylized, carved mask. His close friend and creative collaborator, Luke Marsten, photographed the initial intervention in the Vatican, and a series was born, that now includes documentations of interventions on Wall Street, in Times Square, and at the leaning tower of Pisa.

He describes his feeling while composing ‘Confronting the Church,’ that overcame his fear of the intense security forces patrolling the area and inspired what was to become a visual saga of Native identity reclamation: “Here we are today standing in the Vatican Church in Italy. The Church that had brought so much pain to our people. The church that had introduced and supported the residential schools in wiping out our identity. I am standing here today with a mask to tell the church that we are alive and strong. We are here forever.”

Cook’s painting, Ravenous, refers to the ‘Ravens in a Material World’ of the show title. A hungry looking woman walks out of a shop as if commanding the catwalk, garbed in a Hollywood style gown adorned with traditional Native symbols. She sports the sacred raven on her wrist like an animated, high fashion accessory. LessLIE’s CununDRUM appears on the shop wall, behind a wolfish, Trickster character. For Cook, this image expresses the notion of Western society chasing spirituality through consumerism, a gambit bound to fail by virtue of putting a dollar value onto the invaluable, ineffable, ephemeral sacred world — a gambit surely worthy of being pilloried and satirized.

Perhaps the most subtle and sophisticated Trickster visual commentary in the show was contributed by the young Dylan Thomas. Born in Victoria, in 1986, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Profoundly inspired early in his career by the renowned, Contemporary Coast Salish artist, Susan Point, Thomas has been composing mandala like circular designs inspired by traditional spindle whorls. In keeping with his Buddhist and traditional, shamanist, Coast Salish spirituality, his Escheresque triptych for the show, New Bloom 1, 2, and 3, depicts geometric resonances and harmonies that have international, philosophical mathematicians abuzz. In essence, his visual parables elucidate the Tricksterish paradox that lies at the heart of all the great, mystical systems. Paradox, both humorous and poignant, also animates ‘Urban Thunderbirds.’ and unifies the diverse expressions entailed within the exhibition’s compelling tonality of irony and reverence. 

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
September 20, 2013—January 12, 2014