Thursday, July 9, 2009

Challenging Traditions

Growing up in Canada, we were always exposed to First Nations art, and frankly, it all looked the same. So when my friend Gary, a fan of such work, asked me to accompany him to the McMichael Gallery for a show, I was indifferent.

Until I saw the show. Called Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast, it runs until September 20, 2009. Much of the work is sculptural. Native artists love to carve wood, especially yellow cedar, and no one is better at it. But the whole point of the exhibit is to show Native artists working with non-traditional materials, like silver gilt, lacquered aluminum, or etched glass. Gary’s favorite piece showed an eagle in attack mode, mounted atop a Celtic cross. “That’s my next tattoo,” he exclaimed. I also enjoyed the box of etched glass, lit from inside, which threw wild shadows on the wall; the raven made of black glass; and the gigantic head mask that made me think about what it would be like to be Jack of the Beanstalk fame. There are also incredible totem poles and silver bracelets and carved boxes painted in lovely shades of blue and red.

As we wandered through the gallery, Gary wondered what each individual piece might cost. A fortune, I’m sure. Much of the imagery is scary, mythical, breathtaking, but rarely sexual. More than half of it left me in awe. Later, in the gift shop, I flipped through the exhibition catalogue and it confirmed my belief, that seeing pictures of a magnificent sculpture cannot begin to compare with seeing it from a distance of two feet.

The McMichael Gallery is a nice place, very calm and clean. It proudly boasts the fact that it is 100% Canadian. This is one of the more interesting art exhibits I’ve seen in a long time, well worth the drive to Kleinberg.