In 1999, for Vie des Arts, I wrote about Alcheringa’s exhibition, “Vision Keepers — four women carvers — Dale Campbell, Valerie Morgan, Susan Point and Isabel Rorick.” The show was just one of the many groundbreaking exhibitions produced by Alcheringa’s director, Elaine Monds, during the past three decades. With that exhibition, in showcasing four of the rare examples of women carvers from traditional Northwest Coast cultures, Monds cast a spotlight upon a seldom discussed, clearly gendered role and responsibility — one squarely placed upon the shoulders of the women of matrifocal, Northwest Coast communities — that of nurturing, maintaining and sustaining the visionary foundations of Indigenous art.
Positioned within the same sacrosanct categories of human endeavor as culture, society, and spirituality, art was fostered under the aegis of the clan women. (As Valerie Morgan pointed out to me at that time, Northwest Coast socio /cultural coherence is matrilineal, passed down through the House names.) From the incredibly refined, tiny baskets of Isabel Rorick to the massive, boldly contemporary, cast-glass spindle whorls of Susan Point, the works featured in Vision Keepers exemplified Monds’ willingness to take risks with regard to art patrons’ gendered expectations of Indigenous Art – with what is and what isn’t considered ‘collectible’ when produced by Aboriginal artists.
This dedication to authentic world-views and integral value systems of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Rim is an abiding quality of Alcheringa exhibitions, and characterizes Monds’ curatorship generally. I have attended opening events in the old gallery space that were actually occasions of sacred ritual and ceremony. With Elders, chiefs, shamans, artists, tribal dancers and musicians officiating in full, formal regalia, these august occasions were sometimes in honor of a special exhibition, or to commemorate extraordinary collaborations of artists from tribal cultures spread across the Pacific and hailing from different hemispheres. Sometimes the collaborative meetings of minds and traditions were to celebrate little known facets of Indigenous Art held in common across the widely separated, diverse cultures north and south of the equator – such as intrinsic, erotic elements in Aboriginal artistic expressions, esoteric knowledge systems concerning the environment, or visual deliberations on the spiritual transmigration of souls.
Last June, Victoria’s Alcheringa Gallery moved into a new space after thirty years in the same location. Now located one block down the road at 621 Fort Street, the gallery has featured an illustrious host of Pacific Rim Indigenous artists through the summer, showing wood sculpture, wood block prints, serigraphy, acrylic and oil paintings on canvas and paper. Traditional works that could be used ceremonially were shown alongside contemporary pieces commenting upon topical concerns, but all the works were consistent in one sense: they all deliberated upon the natural world and the sacred realms of myth. In the inaugural exhibition, A Gathering of Spirits, the renowned Coast Salish artist (from Musqueam), Susan Point, is represented with Beyond the Edge, a serigraph edition that seems to speak to the concentric circles of life and the swimming of the salmon, a creature sacred to coastal communities.
Poised in a delicate, symbiotic equilibrium, salmon are essential to the lives and livelihoods of bears, wolves, eagles and other wildlife, as well as to human residents. The image seems to query whether the salmon will return or if they are in fact ‘beyond the edge’ of survival. Looking at the luminous ground of blue-green and the outer ring of sky blue, I remember Vision Keepers participant, Valerie Morgan, telling me how blue is a “spiritual color,” sacred to women and to many traditional, Native women’s mystical societies. Using the power of color, this is a perfectly crafted, potent image – one that performs a kind of restorative magic with its glowing blue hues.
Another Coast Salish artist in the show, and a protégée of Point’s, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Thomas has apprenticed under Rande Cook and also acknowledges Robert Davidson and the late Art Thompson as mentors. Thomas’ entry, “Luck,” is an Escher-like geometric composition that incorporates traditional design elements but manifests as elegantly modern. It appears to speak to timing and opportunity, focus and vision, and the reciprocal symbioses upon which life cycles depend.
A piece that appears at first glance to be very traditional, a carved bowl by Ake Lianga, represents the Southern Hemispheric realm of Spirit. Lianga is a painter, sculptor, and muralist from the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. He now resides in Victoria with his wife, travelling regularly to the Solomon Islands to teach and lecture. Born into a large family of carvers and weavers, he taught himself to paint. His works are strongly narrative, often depicting traditional stories and cultural practices. His entry into this show being no exception, Bowl of Memories – Ceremonial Sea Bowl encompasses entire worlds of meaning and nested concepts. It speaks of journeys and migrations, memories and a nostalgic piquancy. Another artist in the show who hails from the other side of the world, Pax Jakupa, is from the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. With his watercolour, Betel Nut Woman, he depicts a customary scene from village life in a stylistically traditional mode. His intriguing subject casts a big shadow (or perhaps has a big, blue-ish aura), and sits upon her vendor’s mat behind rows of spicy, chewable wares. The image appears naïve, yet is ineffably satisfying, and displays a sense of color, movement and composition that is pure sophistication.
Elaine Monds is in Papua New Guinea as I write, travelling the Sepik River to visit the villages of the artists she deals with. Possibly she is in a canoe painted white (which acts as a sort of spiritual protection), or being honored by a ceremonial dance performed by a secret, village men’s lodge bearing shamanic masks and sacred regalia, as she has been in the past… Upon her return, the new gallery – like the old – will likely be festooned with photographs that document the trip, her artists, contacts, and new and old friends. There will be films and interviews with carvers, painters and printmakers, and exciting accounts of the many adventures encountered on the river and in the towns, villages, cities and jungles along the way. When a show is mounted in Alcheringa Gallery exhibiting the new work, some of the artists will travel from their remote tribal homes, cross the equator, and meet their Northwest Coast colleagues for the first time.
A GATHERING OF SPIRITS Celebrating 30 years of Fine Indigenous Artwork from the Pacific Rim including Canada, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and More.
Alcheringa Gallery (Victoria). June 27th — August 31st, 2015.