A solo show by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas in Victoria is long overdue. Michael Warren of Madrona Gallery agrees but the problem he says is getting a body of work together. Yahgulanaas’ work is in much demand all over the world and Madrona are lucky to have at least one painting and some drawings to show. They are also lucky to have Ottilie Short, a student of Yahgulanaas at UVic, behind the desk to talk about him.
Yahgulanaas is a very active artist. He has had numerous travelling exhibitions and his work can be seen in public spaces, museums, galleries and private collections across North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He works in a variety of forms and media. He also teaches, gives talks, writes books, sits on the board of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and manages various trusts. His illustrated books include ‘Flight of the Humming Bird’ and ‘RED: A Haida Manga’.
With his prodigious energy and output he is actively expanding the audience for First Nations art. He achieves this by fusing traditional elements with contemporary phenomena, intricate paintings for instance that combine Japanese Manga comics with Chinese brushwork that he learned from Cantonese master Cai Ben Kwon, and Haida motifs.
It’s a hybrid art form that reflects his own background, Yahgulanaas has both Haida and European heritage and is descended from Isabella and Charles Edenshaw. He was born in Prince Rupert and grew up on Haida Gwaii where he was involved in community service for many years before finding time for art.
A series called ‘Coppers from the Hood’ perfectly demonstrates the artists’ cross-cultural interests and sense of fun. One piece in particular, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is actually a Haida motif painted on a Tercel hood. One might think that such blatant cultural appropriation would be a little controversial. Not so. Aparently Haida Gwai locals found it quite amusing. As Yahgulanaas explains ‘car hoods are a traditional way of transporting canoes to water’.
As traditional native art becomes more experimental this kind of cultural fusion is gradually becoming the norm. The broader question of course is the extent to which indigenous people adapt to the dominant culture. Or even if they should. As Bill Reid asked in a discussion with Yahgulanaas ….is this work art or ethnicity? It’s a serious question and the debate is ongoing. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas seems to have found a light-hearted way of dealing with it.