The questions posed by this show queried the very existence of erotica in Northwest Coast art, first asking, “Is there such a thing? And, if so, what does it look like?” In answer to this seldom asked question “Lusa’nala (the way we came into this world)” presents sculpture and paintings by seven prominent and emerging contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artists. Calvin Hunt developed the concept for the exhibition along with Rande Cook, having studied the writings of anthropologist Wilson Duff. Duff had noted sexual symbolism in ancient stone tools and carvings and decided it was an area that definitely merited more consideration. “Nobody has ever done an exhibition like this. I was always wondering why,” said Calvin Hunt. “I call this the beginning of something.”

The many works in the show are rendered in media that range “…from stone to wood to acrylic on canvas.” Some works in the exhibition reference historical pieces, such as “Study” by Rande Cook. Diminutive at 6” high, the wood figurine nevertheless hums with a monumental numen, or spiritual energy. The piece was inspired by a figure from an early Northwest Coast collection seen by the artist in a Berlin Museum. It is an irony redolent of potlatch confiscations that Cook had to travel thousands of miles to view a potent and inspiring icon of his own heritage—the evidence of an unbroken, artistic continuum—in a European museum.

Other works in the show offer a more contemporary, personal take, like Francis Dick’s elegiac “Farewell.” This acrylic painting on canvas is essentially Romantic—a delicately shaded, gently hued paean to the Erotic Feminine in a muted palette. It is an elegant and refined requiem for a lost love, restrained yet powerfully evocative. Butterfly and Hummingbird iconography suggest themes of transformation and joy, even while these soulful flowerings are bittersweet and ultimately ephemeral. The painting was the last in a series of five Dick executed in working through a brief yet intense relationship.

Some of the great names that signify the regeneration of First Nations art were contributors in this show. Trevor Hunt (b. 1975) is part of the great Hunt Family of Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. His father is Stan Hunt, his Grandfather was Henry Hunt and his great-grandfather was Mungo Martin. His contributions to this landmark exhibition include icons that are both tender and raw; “Paddle: Nine Months” is a facsimile of a traditional canoe paddle that suggests the navigating of the waters of conception and gestation—the begetting and sustaining of life.

Another T. Hunt piece is “Drum: Lone Wolf,” an enflamed and enflaming image of Wolf clasping his erect, red phallus in his clawed paw, grinning with a hungry, predatory, exultant and celebratory glee.

T. Hunt’s kinsman, Calvin Hunt contributed much to the show besides the exhibit’s conception. “Respect 99” shows the divine Woman as Conceiver, Nurturer, Birth Giver, and final resting place—the archetypical womb and tomb of all life. In keeping with the concept of the show, the senior Hunt’s piece highlights the gateway to life in and through the crucible of the feminine body. The vulva/womb is the portal to the sacred world in this evocation, and the waters of life are seen to be the rich and fertile terrain of our marine origins. In his introductory, welcome speech of the opening ceremonies of the show, C. Hunt spoke of how erotic references had always been a key element of Northwest Coast Art, prior to the ideological incursions of Christian missionizing, residential schools, and juridical prohibitions against the potlatch. These legalized piracies, that so benefitted European and American museum collections and the spurious growth of Eurocentric institutions, had effectively censored a vital component of historic Northwest Coast artistic traditions. An important redress of the egregiously opportunistic pattern of cultural censoring, appropriation, and theft was begun in this Victoria exhibit.

Show continues through December at:
Alcheringa Gallery, Victoria,