When the renowned Haida carver Charles Edenshaw received silver coins from colonial traders back in the 19th century, he would hammer them back into art, as silver bracelets and spoons. He gave them new forms, reinvented and reinterpreted them. Metal came to life and told a story. As a metaphor for the future, Edenshaw’s transformation of “money” back into “culture” is a good one. As all wealth comes from nature, and nature itself makes the environments, elements and food we consume, nature becomes a sublime provider… the art of which we are a part.

Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Charles Edenshaw is a much-needed tribute to one of the West Coast’s most active Haida carvers. Born in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii in the late 19th century, Edenshaw was later to become chief ldansuu. His innovations with traditional formlines are most evident in this show. The carvings, plates, silver bracelets and spoons, totems and furniture were sought after not only locally but by anthropologists, colonials, traders, travellers and his own people up and down the coast.

With this landmark exhibition, the rest of Canada can now see how Edenshaw mastered the visual language of his ancestors and took it a step further. The pieces of the puzzle that is the evolution of North West coast Native art are gradually fitting together. Edenshaw was among the greats, an original carver who adapted the formlines and images from the vernacular, largely unwritten storytelling culture of his people, with great sophistication and a light, fluid sense. As many of the argillite carvings, motifs for baskets and hats, wood carvings left his community, he gained a greater freedom working with the images, forms, that were part of a continuity of Haida tradition.

The incredible power of the narrative and animation that is the Haida culture can be seen the argillite plates Edenshaw carved. They have a sculptural relief quality and re-enact traditional stories such as The Blind Halibut Fisherman, Mouse Woman, Bear Mother, and How Raven Gave Females their tsaw. The forms, creatures we see here are like the re-telling of these stories, endless recreations with adaptations throughout, but always with the original story as the backdrop.

Charles Edenshaw’s images were an inspiration for later generations including Bill Reid, Robert Davidson and Tony Hunt to name a few. What is more, in the late 19th century when he was active, apprenticing with his uncle from age 14, anthropologists like Franz Boas would draw their materials directly from carvers and storytellers. The exchange was mutual; foreign influence on the content, or interweaving of images carvers and crafts weavers would produce. Examples of this include the beautiful walking sticks with ivory carved heads, one of which has Dumbo the elephant of circus fame atop it, or the woven hats and baskets Edenshaw collaborated on with his wife Isabella, by contributing stencil and painted images. The intercultural exchange Edenshaw initiated through his art was largely unconscious, a bread and butter necessity in an age when the colonial economy was impinging on traditional North West coast culture. The potlatch feasts, gifts and size of the totems attest to this.

One of the most beautiful works on view at the McMichael is a model house Edenshaw carved in 1901 (now in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History). Made of finely cut sections and pieces of wood, bark and pigment and with an ever so fine miniature house pole, the work is a masterpiece in carving, as simple as it is eloquent — an emblem of a rich Amerindian auto-history. Unfortunately, the smallpox epidemics affected the continuity of Haida and Amerindian culture, though it was later brought back to life by Bill Reid and others.

What we truly can appreciate in the miniature yet monumental feel of the argillite totems, or the silver and gold spoons with their incredible design motifs, is how intricate and vibrant Edenshaw’s interwoven mastery of traditional Haida motifs could be. His response is as sophisticated as Celtic, Saxon, or Viking design, and the immediacy is so vibrant we feel the presence of nature in these innovations, punctuated with traditional Haida visual cues. We see the eagle, raven, orca whale and sea bear, all symbols of the complex and beautiful intertwining of nature and culture, very much a reality for these peoples’ rich and complex historical evolution. The power of Edenshaw’s sense of narrative, is that it was not fixed in time, or frozen by repetition, or overly orthodox. As a show Charles Edenshaw provides truthful attestation of our place in eternity as seen from the Haida perspective, a lively testament to a living culture whose ultimate exchange was with, and respectful of, nature. 

June 28—September 21, 2014