Assembly: Eight Emerging Photographers From Southern California
Written by Edward Robinson
Associate Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Contemporary U.S. Photography, Fotofest 2010 Biennial (Catalogue)
Houston TX, March 12 – April 25, 2010
Published by Fotofest Inc., Houston, and Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam
Distributed by Fotofest Inc. and Thames & Hudson, London
Augusta Wood explores the persistence of memory and the ways in which imagery and text can interact to give meaning to experience. Her photographs serve as both documents of existing spaces—domestic residences, landscapes, sites private and public—and constructions into which she inserts the additional markings of words. In so doing, the artist pursues her stated desire to interrupt the normative “presumption of pictorial stability.” Wood incorporates phrases—etched in snow, stitched over a window screen, drawn across the floor (in honey and dead bees)—culled from a personal archive that combines her own poignant remarks with texts published by others. In one image, the phrase “the chaos of warm things,” a line attributable to Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, appears in words shown as shadows thrown across a kitchen corner by the late afternoon sunlight. Other phrases seen in her images, such as “unfolding in pieces,” do not so readily offer up their origins, though are likely the artist’s own. By virtue of bestowing personal attachment onto texts through the very act of their collection and deployment, Wood makes the distinction between author and beholder insignificant. In her poetic scenes, which are both true and fictional, the multiple roles of the artist—author, director, collaborator—gain a heightened attention and ambiguity. Wood’s fascination with using the interplay of word and image to create new meaning recalls the work of such diverse artists and thinkers as Italo Calvino, Roland Barthes, Ed Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger. Yet through the intensity of her vision and the poignancy of her textual adaptations, Wood achieves a particularly powerful balance between ambiguity and significance.
Photographic exploration also provides the artist with ways to understand the relationship of the past to the present. Wood describes her concern as one of the “mapping” and “navigation” of personal history. In her most recent series, I have only what I remember (2009-2010), Wood continues to investigate the ways photography can elicit meaning from the personal archive that is memory and the ways its association with a sense of place can shape identity. As seen in Sesame Street (1980, 2008) (2009), she revisits what was once the center of her early life, the former home of her grandparents, now emptied in final preparation for its sale to new inhabitants. Wood projects into these rooms multiple, overlapping family snapshots that bring to life once more the arts, artifacts, figures, and circumstances that shaped her past experiences and thus her present memories. The sight of herself as a small child standing before an obsolete television set—the construction of the documented past—elicits an inescapable reckoning with past experience, urging us to recall anew the former presence of rooms and relationships that shape our current selves.
‘Place’ is a complex and multi-layered subject, productive of the intricate cosmologies that make us who we are and shape the world around us. Understanding Place in Culture: Serigraphs and the Transmission of Cultural Knowledge aims to take this consideration of ‘place’ as its theoretical foundation, focusing on how Indigenous perspectives of place shape expressions of important cultural knowledge. Art is uniquely positioned to express these diverse ontologies of being because of its ability to communicate multiple messages in one image, sound, or expression.
The following curatorial essay is taken from excerpts from my MA Thesis Paper (2012): Curatorial Practice in Anthropology: Organized Space and Knowledge Production[i]. The essay is composed of four main sections: 1) An introduction to the exhibit and central methodologies, including artist interviews, archival research, and the phenomenological engagements of sound; 2) A discussion of the serigraphs themselves and their depictions of place; 3) An analysis of the exhibition space of the library and its relationship to the exhibit; 4) An exploration of the serigraphs as important learning tools in the transmission of cultural knowledge that complicates their association with commercialization and profit-oriented production. The purpose of this essay is to contextualize the exhibit in terms of its creation and production, providing a critical framework for thinking about Indigenous perspectives of space and place in correlation to the hegemonic views of culture often put into practice in Canada’s larger museums and art galleries. I encourage viewers to click on the links to the corresponding serigraphs and explore the expressions, knowledge, and perspectives that these artists have chosen to share.
I: Understanding Place in Culture: Serigraphs and the Transmission of Cultural Knowledge
The exhibition Understanding Place in Culture: Serigraphs and the Transmission of Cultural Knowledge showcases serigraphs by Indigenous artists from the coastal areas of British Columbia, and are part of both the Smyth and Rickard Collections of Northwest Coast serigraphs at the Maltwood Prints and Drawings Gallery at McPherson Library in Victoria, BC. Seven artists from different Indigenous communities are represented in the exhibition: Francis Dick, Maynard Johnny Jr., Edward Joe, Stan Greene, Floyd Joseph, Tim Paul, and Joe David. Through consultation with artists and extensive research, a selection of 30 prints were chosen from the 1300 prints comprising the Smyth and Rickard print collections that are part of the University of Victoria Art Collections (UVAC). All of the serigraphs selected from this collection represent or convey a sense of place in some way, either through a direct representation of a physical location; an image that translates a story about a specific place; or images that, on multiple levels, connect the artist to a sense of belonging (through memory, dreams, etc.) to a specific place.
It is important and essential to deconstruct the differences between notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’ in order to understand the theoretical pretext of the exhibition. ‘Spaces’ in this context are framed as places that are both physically (museums, libraries, institutions, etc.) and socially (particular designations of spaces, territories, etc.) constructed. The misconception that space functions as an inert universal container is challenged by Edward Casey’s (1997) reasoning that space and time are created and positioned within place and local knowledge. Place, in this sense, is therefore an extremely complex term, tying into relational concepts of belonging and local knowledge (Casey 1997). It is the relational qualities of place that produce our ontolgies of being, including our conceptualizations of ‘space’ (Casey 1997). According to prominent philosopher Henri Lefevbre (1974), spaces (built environments such as architectural space) are to be perceived as active environments that transform in direct correspondence to the dwelling bodies that inhabit them. Therefore, the construction of exhibition spaces by curators speaks directly to processes of knowledge transfer and production. It is these arguments that secure the theoretical backing for this exhibit, linking the space of the gallery (a space in which to represent cultural knowledge) and the places of the serigraphs (which are themselves visual articulations of cultural knowledge). Space and place are experienced through phenomenological encounters, therefore the exhibition aims to include multiple fields of sensorial engagement (sight and sound) in order to more accurately represent the artists’ articulations of place.
Along with the serigraphs, selections of audio from the interviews with two of the artists, Francis Dick and Maynard Johnny Jr., are available to listen to in association with their images. These audio clips are accessible to the visitors via smart phone, and add significantly to the dynamics and interactive space of the exhibition. In these ‘soundscapes,’ the artists talk about the experiences that lead to their creation of particular representations of place, and so their narratives frame the serigraph as a direct representation of the experience of that specific place.[ii][iii] The soundscapes also convey a sense of storytelling that disrupts the authority of the written word by placing an emphasis on the intangible processes of knowledge transmission and expression. These narratives are not positioned as objects, but as intricate foundations and performances from which we may begin to understand the multi-layered meanings of the serigraphs.[iv] Framing the selected narratives as performances of cultural experience rather than objects attributes meaning to the interviews beyond that of source data. It places these narratives as meaningful expressions in themselves (see Ingold 2000:22–24), embracing an ethnographic method that ‘implicates listening as cultural practice’ (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa and Porcello 2010). All of the serigraphs chosen for this exhibition are active in the transmission of important cultural knowledge; they each have something different and important to say about our (the artists’ and the public’s) current relationships to space and place. As the serigraphs chosen for this exhibition are significant sites of knowledge, these representations act as a conceptual gateway into the artists’ relationships with both physical and intangible places that are culturally significant.
The selection of serigraphs and title of this exhibition was determined in a particular way. I chose to focus on the artists and their own interpretations of place, rather than simply selecting a variety of prints that spoke to strictly collective notions of physical place in correspondence to different communities. In cases where I was able to speak to the artists, I asked them to select the serigraphs they thought best represented a valuable or significant relationship to place for them. In other cases, where I was unable to do interviews, the selection process involved comprehensive research (site visits, topographical and archival research) of the titles and places listed or represented in the serigraphs, and the images’ relationship to documented reports, ethnographies or stories. Although the artists are from different cultural backgrounds, and from different places along the coast of British Columbia, the organization of their work in the exhibition does not follow the conventional geographic-cultural model of nation by nation; instead, it focuses on the individual artists’ interpretations of place and the corresponding stories expressed in the serigraphs.
In conversations with the artists and through my research about their images, it became apparent that ‘places’ are not always depicted by their physical characteristics. There are a multitude of levels and perspectives from which a ‘place’ can be considered (Casey 1997). Place cannot be understood as a formal universal and therefore representations of specific places take shape in a variety of forms (Casey 1997). These include depictions of a place or time in the memory of the artist, the changes of a given site over time, the activities (fishing, whaling) or stories associated with certain sites (like rivers or mountains), or considerations of belonging to a particular place. As opposed to simply focusing on notions of place in terms of my own understanding (such as readily discernible physical sites and their history), I realized it was much more important that the artists choose their own prints and that their perspectives of place, both tangible and intangible, be apparent in the exhibition. In cases where interviews were not possible, past artist statements and commentary was consulted and employed in order to facilitate the artists’ voice in the exhibition.
Although the idea of choosing serigraphs from a collection set boundaries around the selection of prints, it gave us a departure point from which to think with and explore. My curatorial intentions lay not in a desire to explain the entirety of messages and layered meanings of these images, but rather to locate points of shared experience/knowledge that could be exchanged in our conversations, and in the viewing of the prints in the gallery. Viewers are able to sense connections to place through both visual and audible cues, and this, I hope, will promote intellectual and emotional engagement with the exhibit. Although the audiences’ levels of involvement will decidedly vary, the serigraphs and their corresponding narratives, ask the viewer to consider different connections to place. These connections include the ways in which space is phenomenologically experienced; this may include memory, song, dance, performance, sounds, smells, feelings, etc. These connections do not rely simply on visual descriptors; rather, they involve embodied knowledge that is central to cultural continuity and knowledge transmission. Perhaps the emphasis of these phenomenological connections will prompt the viewer to differently contemplate the ways in which they experience the spaces closest to themselves.
II: The Particulars of Place: the Serigraphs in the Exhibition
A sense of place is an important aspect of an individual’s knowledge about self and history.[v] Our relationships to place define and create who we are as people (Harkin 2000; Ingold 2000; Lefevbre 1974). Many of the serigraphs used in the exhibition address particular ‘places’ of significant meaning for the individual artists. ‘Place’ could mean a number of things in this context: it could be a physical place, such as Francis Dick’s depiction of Kingcome in Gwa’yi (U990.14.226), Floyd Joseph’s Stawamus (U990.14.701), the rivers referenced in Maynard Johnny Jr.’s Leader of the Fisherman (L010.3.311), or the waters in Edward Joe’s fishing prints (U998.7.40 and U998.7.41). The serigraphs could also be markers of intangible places, such as Dick’s Galadzi (L010.3.151), which speaks to an inner place of self, a tangible expression of an intangible place. These prints offer important conceptions of place that are different from the descriptions found in a historical anthropological text or geographic atlas. Most public comprehension of place is based on the descriptions found in these historical documents, not on those found in Indigenous serigraphs. The stories and relationships depicted in these serigraphs are expressions of phenomenological connections to place, direct experiences: smells, colours, the tangible and the intangible, the indescribable feelings of space. Place is not always bound to one particular designation of a geographic territory of a nation; rather, it expands and contracts in direct correlation to the artists’ motives, desires, and experiences. The artists in this exhibition use images to convey these complex senses of place, especially the transformative nature of place. The serigraphs themselves are the learning tools for understanding these concepts of place, simultaneously expressing individual/ collective perspectives. The following provides a few examples of the serigraphs that the artists and I chose as markers of these relationships.[vi]
Hegemonic constructions of geographic space, such as maps, are often represented as bordered and contained (Thom 2009). This makes it difficult for non-Indigenous people to conceptualize borders as transforming over time; not that they do not exist, but that they transform in relation to multiple fields of engagement and cultural contexts. Geographic borders also work to distance us from one another, especially in terms of national boundaries, which in turn create nationalities: peoples defined within those territorial borders. At the same time, these geographic boundaries can be important defining features of a community, giving significant reference marks for negotiations with the government, like the treaty process (Karen Duffek in interview, July 14, 2011). The complexity of this issue is accounted for in the following statements made by Kwakwaka’wakw/ Coast Salish artist Maynard Johnny Jr.:
I’ve always been wary of libraries and anthropologists’ books, especially in the early years, like 1900 – to probably as late as ’88. I’ve seen books where, you know, they say they have an artifact they found in the Cowichan territory, or they would say in the Duncan area, ‘[an] unknown artist, unknown tribe.’ Well, it’s obvious it’s Coast Salish, you can see from on the design work it’s Coast Salish, and if you found it in Duncan, there’s a good chance its Coast Salish [laughs]. And this is a book from, I think, made in 1974 or something, so, I mean, as late as then they weren’t sure who was what. So I think, for the most part, like, I mean I’ve been told stories by elders and even as young as my uncles, who are in their fifties and sixties now. They were told stories from their father or their grandfather that happened all around this whole area, from Comox to Seattle. Our people had traveled that far on canoes.
My uncle used to joke about it. He used say, you know, like, ‘I remember when, you know, my son came up to me, and he goes ‘Hey dad, you wanna go to Seattle?’ And then he’d sit there and whine about it, saying ‘Oh and then I gotta catch the ferry, then I gotta pay for the food, then I gotta go….You know, Seattle. Find a place to stay,’ blah blah blah. And then he remembers our people did all this in canoes—lets go to Seattle. ‘Oh okay, let’s get in the canoe and travel onto Seattle.’ No problem, right? And here we are, whining about ferries and places to stay and things to eat, but they did this for a living, you know they had to do this. It’s pretty neat, too, and people don’t realize that the Cowichan had traditional territories in Tsawassen, and Halalt had traditional territories in Cowichan. You know, so, we’re all different Coast Salish people, but we also came into each other’s territory and we’d hunt and fish—whatever we had to do. So books don’t really reflect that stuff, but our elders do, and it’s up to us to find a way to keep it going. [Johnny in interview, August 10, 2011]
This narrative is extremely important to think about in terms of how borders are negotiated in Coast Salish communities on an on-going basis. In relation to kinship ties, some families may have access to multiple resource sites in other territories, and so boundaries are dependant on a whole range of factors that change over time (Ingold 2000; Kennedy 2002; Miller 1998; Thom 2009). Consequently, it is very difficult to pin down secure geographic boundaries that designate one area for one cultural grouping of people. As Thom (2009) has explored, the arbitrary boundaries associated with treaty processes and resource claims do not accurately address relational based territories and may perpetuate colonial ideologies of designated spaces. These complexities must be explored in depth as many communities may have overlapping land claims (see Cook v. The Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation 2007). Narratives, such as Maynard Johnny’s above, can be connected to certain images, such as Thunderbird, Whale Canoe (L010.3.408), and can help the audience to understand the complexities of spatial designations and the ways in which they to affect land claims today. Concepts of place are an intricately networked part of our daily lives, and must be addressed as such. Johnny’s serigraphs of Thunderbird, Whale Canoe (L010.3.408) and Protecting Mother (L010.3.390), speak to the kinship ties and relationships between nations and the concerns of fluctuating boundaries and resource sharing—all essential elements of his perspectives on the sharing of space. Maynard Johnny Jr. shared a wonderful story about his Coast Salish family’s relationship with his Kwakwaka’wakw family, in relation to his serigraph Protecting Mother (L010.3.390). His mother is Kwakwaka’wakw and a member of the Wolf Clan, but in his narrative, he speaks about how his familial relationship with the Kwakwaka’wakw goes back even further in time in relation to his great-great-great-grandfather. In this instance, Johnny’s serigraphs represent a connection between places by-way of kinship ties, an interconnection that transverses many of the boundaries we see in cartographic maps of the Northwest Coast.
Places are indicative of knowledge production and phenomenological learning, Johnny’s print Leader of the Fisherman (L010.3.311) relates to a personal experience Johnny had with his father while fishing on a river:
So, I remember one day my dad and I were fishing and I was about 12 or so, maybe thirteen, and we were walking up and down the river, just trying to fish. And we couldn’t catch anything at all. So we ended up walking down the river, and further down up on the tree was an eagle. And we’re like, ‘Oh wow check it out—an eagle!’ You know, being amazed by this bird, and we’re looking up and all of sudden he swoops down and catches a fish. And you know, it kind of, like blew us away. We’re like, wow, that’s really cool. My dad’s like, ‘Well let’s fish here,’ and we caught three fish that day. [Johnny in interview, August 10, 2011]
This particular serigraph is very important to the artist, and is reflective of a place in time through which he and his father engaged in a learning experience that was productive of the place in which it occurred. Practices that are indicative of the environments in which they occur are characteristic of Harkins’ (2000: 62) comments that places have power as symbols, often through their utility, such as fishing or whaling, as places of prosperity or danger. In Johnny’s story the eagle and its interaction with the river is the source of knowledge about where and how to fish. Johnny’s image of the eagle as part human and part eagle reflects this relationship (Johnny in interview, August 10, 2011).
Coast Salish artist Stan Greene’s images, First Hunter (U993.26.10), First Fisherman (U993.26.12), and First Carver (L010.3.189) relate to Johnny’s story, as they are expressions of living with, and learning from the land. In Greene’s images, one can see that certain animals act as teachers in lessons of the land. Greene’s designation of the woodpecker as the ‘First Carver,’ for example, demonstrates a way of learning that comes directly from an experience of acquiring knowledge from the places in which we dwell. These three serigraphs explore how active engagements with the land create who we are: how we learn to survive and nourish our communities. Although these stories are often retold and explored in Stó:lō ethnographies (Duff 1952; Hill-Tout 1978), Greene’s visual interpretations of these ethnographies offer a different way of learning that is emphasized through images. Greene’s depictions are, in a way, like a carefully crafted film still or photograph, where a multitude of messages about the environment, teaching, and knowledge are suspended within one frame. The serigraphs in this way are constructions of knowledge; they are crafted in a specific way to represent the truthful realities of the artists’ perspectives on being. As Pink (2011) has described, visual descriptors of place, like photographs or images, are important phenomenologies of place, that acknowledge our connections with our environments as being constantly constructed and sensed.
Edward Joe’s serigraphs of fish and his uncles’ fishing boats also reflect a relationship to the practice of fishing and knowledge. When talking about the serigraphs, Joe brought up stories about his uncle fishing and his ancestors’ relationship with the fish, explaining to me that they had a much better relationship with the fish then people do today (Joe in interview, August 10, 2011). Joe’s Elders have been the first-hand witnesses of the depletion of fish and the changes made to fishing practices by government regulation. As witnesses, these Elders have seen how colonialist tactics of government control have changed Cowichan relationships with the resources of their community, including their knowledge of the fish. Joe’s Fish serigraphs, Pawee (L010.3.385), Aeght (L010.3.386), and Tuqw tuqw (L010.3.387), are repatriations of cultural knowledge about local Cowichan resources, reflecting an inalienable relationship with the natural resources of the land and his ancestors. At the same time, these images also stand as testaments to those who have witnessed the transformation of fishing rights over time, and the loss of cultural knowledge in correspondence to this.
Bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, bays, etc., have significant ties to Indigenous cosmologies of space, often forming a powerful foundation of community identity and a sense of belonging (Bierwert 1999). Two of Stan Greene’s prints included in the exhibition, Lost in the Fraser (U990.14.686) and People of the River (L010.3.193), are important representations of the Fraser River. Greene belongs to the Stó:lō and Semiahmoo Nations, both of which have an incredibly strong relationship with the Fraser River. In her ethnography Brushed by Cedar (1999:39), Bierwert contextualizes Coast Salish cosmologies about place as an emphasis on being before culture, in which the power of place is inherent within the place rather than being inscribed upon it (i.e., by way of a conceptual attachment). In speaking specifically about Stó:lō relationships to place, Bierwert (1999:44) talks about the Fraser as a constantly transforming place, a “vortex” in which Stó:lō world views and knowledge are created. A crucial aspect of the Fraser, Bierwert (1999:44–45) notes, is that its power has not been hindered, and the that fact that people still actively engage with this place on a daily basis, quickens the transformation of that knowledge into present day actions and ideas. Greene’s serigraph Lost in the Fraser illustrates the power of the Fraser and the continuation of Salish knowledge through the utilization of Salish design elements (Gibson 1994). In an interview with Brian Thom in 1996, Greene states the following:
This one here is “Lost in the Fraser.” This is one of my own designs. After I did the “Spindle Whorls” I was working with a company in Vancouver. They were people that…the public was like sucking up, here is a Salish artist finally and doing Salish work. And they were buying up my work pretty good all of the time. Then I wanted to do a square, rectangular picture, I says. All of the artists, they said “no, just stick to the spindle whorl design the people know you of your people [Salish]. I said “well all of the other tribes do rectangle, they do any kind of picture they want to do.” They said no. So I went home, I had this one piece and I brought it down to them and showed and explained to them what it was. They thought it was a strong design and a nice design and what it is the background is out in the Fraser River. The fish in the front here are the sturgeon. The man in the middle here holding on to the sturgeon with his hands forming the fins on the surgeon. Is pushing himself out. There was a man that drowned in the Fraser River and he lost his life. A lot of the people along the side of the river, the fishermen, a lot of them lost there lives. They had to learn to respect the river. If you didn’t respect the river then it take your life. To ease the people’s minds, there’s a sturgeon that went up, if somebody got lost in the river, they were alright. But the sturgeon people went and they took them. They took them to the bottom of the river. The bottom of the river was a village there and he lived there then, that fisherman. And he was alright. That was the only way of easing the peoples minds that “all my sons drowned in the river and … there’s a lot of stories like that the animals taking the man to the other world where the people go and they die. But they say that when you die, we go the other world and I’m going to be with my grandmother, my mother, my father, I’m going to be there with them when I leave this world. We will all be together. And so our life goes on, on and on again. It’s a part of the way of life, a part of belief. [Greene in interview with Thom, May 1996]
His serigraph People of the River depicts a similar iconography, including a jumping sturgeon and ancestral figures generated through the landscape imagery. Greene’s serigraphs illustrate this idea that the river is a powerful force that dictates his people’s lives, their actions, and their gains: it is an intrinsic component of their being. This point is important to recognize because his images create a dialogue on contemporary Indigenous connections to place and their active position within the social, political and economic relations of the day.
Oral histories are important markers of current negotiations of identity, resources, and land claims (Bierwert 1999; Cruikshank1992). Tim Paul, a Hesquiaht artist born in Zeballos on Vancouver Island, explains, “Through my art, by introducing our cultural, spiritual, and environmental perspective, I validate our oral history” (Paul qtd. in MacNair 2000:372). Paul has worked hard in his artistic practice to convey a clear sense of his Hesquiaht cultural knowledge and ideology. His works emphasize important stories, such as Earthquake Foot (U988.4.13), and the transmission of cultural knowledge through practices such as fishing and whaling (U990.14.585 and U990.14.587).[vii] Joe David, of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, puts a similar emphasis on his work as markedly characteristic of Tla-o-qui-aht artistic history and cosmology (see David with Duffek 2000). One of his works included in this exhibition, Life on Meares Island (U990.14.496), represents Meares Island, home to the Tla-o-qui-aht community at Opitsaht in Clayoquot Sound, where David was born. David endeavors to create an aspect of cultural experience in his artworks, something that conveys his people’s history and who he is (David with Duffek 2000). He defines culture as “not something that is yours because your grandma or great-grandpa had it. There’s a power in the old stuff that comes from living in that energy-field system…” (with Duffek 2002:358). As was discussed in relation to Stan Greene’s work above, and is evident here in David’s image, the power within place creates every aspect of these artists’ being: it facilitates their experience and ability to envision the world. The oral histories conveyed in Paul’s images, and the emphasis on homeland in David’s, stress how perceptions of place are intricately tied to our cosmology and the ways in we explain and express the world around us.
Francis Dick is from the Dzawadaenutw people of Kingcome Inlet, one of the many nations of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. The artist identifies the village’s name as Gwa’yi and her relationship with her homeland forms the epistemological basis for much of her artwork. Dick made important comments on the translation of her relationship to place through her paintings:
When I first started out, it was all about where I came from and my identity as a Kwakwaka’wakw person… and by doing that I’d be painting images of stylized Northwest Coast clouds up in Kingcome or the mountains up in Kingcome, and how we talked about the story that was attached to the lake or an area in Kingcome. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011]
In relation to her first painting of Gwa’yi (U990.14.226), Dick asked herself how she would come to paint Kingcome:
I’d never done landscape before, this is my first time. I’d been doing wolves, that was my first piece. ‘How am I going to do this?’ This was really interesting. So I did the river, I did the mountains and did Kwakwainyuhk, the whale in the mountain and then the tree line, the tree line and a wolf in it. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011]
Francis Dick represents place in relation to her experience of it, her history, her knowledge of the river and the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants. It is not a quintessential landscape image; it is an image in which all kinds of stories and layers of personal expressions and entwined histories are embedded (Dick in interview, August 4, 2011). Narratives of the landscape fill this image, representing the life and the histories that compose that place. In interviews about this particular serigraph, Dick expressed the two following statements:
When I paint something, like Gwa’yi for instance—a painting I did when I first went back… I had a wolf in the painting and then I had a whale because there is a mountain, that was called Gwał’gwáyam’nukw, and what that means is ‘a mountain owning whales,’ and during the great flood, when the flood was going down, back down, these whales got stuck in the mountain and they turned to stone. And now my uncle says that up there, Gwał’gwáyam’nukw, that mountain, it looks like there’s a whale stuck in the mountain. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011].
I can remember clearly riding up the river to the village. The ride was beautiful and very special. The river was a pale olive green, and eagles sat on the trees at the edge of the river as we rode up to the village. Being back in the village was an incredible feeling for me. I could feel the strength, in the mountains, the trees that surrounded the village and especially the river. The place was surrounded with legends of the past. [Dick 1987]
The lived landscape is embodied through the stories that make up the land, histories that take place over time and that can only be known and fully understood by those individuals who have lived in those places. Dick also talks about the mountain, Xwap’tso, or ‘Noisy Mountain,’ in regards to her painting of Gwa’yi:
So already I had in my mind that I was going to paint Kingcome Inlet. And I was like ‘what am I—how am I going to paint Kingcome Inlet?” You know, it’s like when I think of Kingcome I think of …Xwap’tso, the big mountain, where there is this wonderful big mountain with a cave in it, and even on a hot sunny day it’s got snow on it. And, when I was just up there we were driving along a field and I hear this rumbling, a hot sunny day, there’s this rumbling and I’m like “whoa shit.” The snow would slide, and it would pass through the cave and it would make this amazing noise, this rumbling, the sound would be really enhanced because of the cave. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011]
Xwap’tso is an important feature in other stories and ethnographies about Kingcome Inlet (see Craven 1967 and also Wilson 2004), and is visible on the right-hand side of Dick’s image, where a huge crack can be seen slicing down the face of the mountain. The mountain is an important marker to Dick of her relationship to her home and her people; its memory and image help keep her attachment to that place alive. It is also an important marker of her sensorial relationship to Kingcome, in that the very sound of the mountain is a significant marker of place. In her serigraph Kank’ulahukw (U990.14.227) Dick tells another story about her relationship to Lake Kank’ulahukw and its corresponding attachments to her cultural heritage:
I was having a conversation with my dad. He was talking about, to me about, this lake up in Kingcome and this lake had a name, Kank’ulahukw, is the name of this lake, and it’s got moving islands on it. It’s got these big patches of grass, they are huge, like half the size of the living room, you know some of them the size of the table, and they just, like, float around on the lake. But you have to know where you’re going. It’s, like, a 2-hour drive on this logging truck like to find this, like. I went to look for this lake, nobody really knew where Kank’ulahukw was; nobody ever talked about it. I heard it from my father; my father is a historian, everything that he knows is passed down to me. It’s that oral history, right? […]
The first lake we found was Kank’ulahukw, and sure enough, it was very cool. And I got out—there was about seven of us and it was just amazing. Like, I just sat there and there were, like, exactly like my dad said, there were these moving islands…. There were these moving islands, and there is a potlatch that happened hundreds of hundreds of years ago—like my people are really amazing with theatrics within the potlatch system—but during this potlatch this family created [a] big loon, wooden loon, and it would go under water and come up and come up and they would—a man, a couple men, could get in there and they could make this loon go under [the water]. Anyways, the mechanics got all messed up, and the men drowned in the bottom of the lake. And so I decided that I was going to paint the lake. How am I going to paint the lake? […] How am I going to paint moving islands? Right? But anyways, I had a loon that was diving under, and I told my story about going up to the lake, and I told the story about the men drowning. I know it’s the saddest thing, but how amazing it was that there were people… I don’t want to say ‘committed’ because it wasn’t something you were committed to, you just were, you were this nation and what you did was you expressed your spirit, your ‘’nalakw,’ your connection through these potlatches, and in these potlatches you had these masks for, well, they tell stories, dances, and songs. And so I talked about that… in my paintings. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011].[viii]
Dick’s statements again reflect on the idea that considerations of space and place are part of our daily lives, especially in terms of what she says about the men drowning: it is not simply that these men were ‘committed’ to their culture; what was important was how they expressed their connection to their people, to their land, to their being. These visual representations of place are not just recordings, they are active engagements with what these places mean to the artist here and now. This engagement with the embodied experience of place is also active in Floyd Joseph’s representation of Stawamus.
Floyd Joseph’s serigraph of Stawamus (U990.14.701), a massive granite dome also known as ‘The Chief,’ depicts a clear relationship to place. In Joseph’s image, an eagle and the mountain are one in their designation of the sacred space of Stawamus. Stawamus gets its name from the Sḵwxwú7mesh village that was located at the base of the rock face near Shannon Falls, in Squamish, B.C. The granite structure is now a popular location for hikers and rock climbers from all over the world, and the Sḵwxwú7mesh First Nation has expressed some concerns about the overuse of the area and its possible restoration in the Sḵwxwú7mesh Xay Temixw (Sacred Land: Land Use Plan).[ix] The story of Te Qoitcital, the Serpent Slayer (L010.3.419), another serigraph of Stawamus by Floyd Joseph, takes place in this area of Sḵwxwú7mesh territory.[x] The scratches left by te sinotlkai (a large two-headed water-serpent) on the surface of the cliff face are visible today from the valley (Hill-Tout 1978:73–76; Townsend-Gault 2011). Living in Valley Cliff (the residential area at the western base of Stawamus) for an extended period myself, I strongly identify with Joseph’s depictions of the site, observing the power of this place on a daily basis. The variety of distinct landforms on the site of Stawamus and the corresponding lakes and rivers in the area all have significant ties to Sḵwxwú7mesh oral history (Hill-Tout 1978), and Joseph’s serigraphs are an important re-telling of the creation of these places and their relationship to the Sḵwxwú7mesh people.
Everyone has some sense of a relationship to place in reference to his or her own ancestry and cultural histories (Harkin 2000:66; Townsend-Gault 1998:43). The serigraphs included in Understanding Place in Culture represent places of great value to the artists, places that shape the artists’ understanding of themselves and their place in the world. On behalf of the artists, the serigraphs work as knowledge producers in that they carry meaning, transmitted on multiple levels to the audience (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous). It is essential that these serigraphs and the artists’ narratives be recognized as significant markers of knowledge transmission, because they contain important cultural information on the histories and embodied knowledge of these places. If these representations can coerce the audience to be further engaged in what these artists are trying to say about these places in particular, the viewer may have a better understanding of why current socio-political negotiations on the importance of place are so pivotal for the continuation of cultural knowledge.
III: The Exhibition space: The McPherson Library
The location of the exhibit prompts following questions: What does the library mean to us? What does a gallery in the library mean to us? What does this specific exhibit in the library mean to us? The location of Understanding Place in Culture in McPherson library is important because, like the prints in the exhibition, it also says something specific about the relationship between knowledge production and the construction of socially empowered spaces. Here it is pivotal to reference philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s (1974: 115–121) idea that the construction of space is rooted in the dominant ideologies of a particular historical period.[xi] Buildings such as libraries, universities, and museums reflect dominant ideologies.[xii]I would argue that the ideologies of the museum and library go hand in hand when we consider them as storehouses of knowledge, the architectural trophies of Enlightenment ideals of an objective organization of knowledge. Written words are accepted as authoritative representations that work to fix reality (Lefebvre 1974). Likewise, it could be argued that museums, too, attempt to arrest decay, to freeze time and space (see Haraway 1989:55).
Lefevbre’s ideas on the construction of space connect to Casey’s (1997) comments that place is constructive of space in terms of its ideological attachments. What is missing, or perhaps not as clearly addressed in Lefevbre’s text as it is in Casey’s, is that place functions as the epistemological and phenomenological basis for those very ideologies. It is therefore place that produces culture, which in turn designates and builds spaces (Casey1997). An understanding that local/ historical ideologies are instructive of the architectural spaces that we create as society demonstrates how spaces, such as museums and libraries, are positioned as institutions indicative of a colonial logic. However, an emphasis on the transformative nature of place and diverging ontologies of space and place can in-turn reconfigure these spaces as dialogical platforms rather than colonial monoliths.
The placement of an art gallery inside the McPherson library attests to the expansion of interdisciplinary knowledge and the incorporation of new discourses over the consumption and creation of knowledge. The serigraphs in the exhibition add to these discourses by emphasizing perspectives that focus on different ways of organizing and representing knowledge. These perspectives involve looking at the ways in which knowledge is incorporated into an image through formal qualities; they demonstrate how an image reflects (or deflects) cultural knowledge. We can think here of Harkin’s (2000:59) description of Laurence Paul Yuxweluptan’s work in which the artist integrates Northwest Coast design elements into the landscape. Dick does something similar as she illustrates stories that are part of the landscape in and around Kingcome Inlet, such as the serigraphs Gwa’yi (U990.14.226), Kank’ulahukw (U990.14.227) and K’ałaliłam (U990.14.225).
The sound recordings that accompany a few of the serigraphs allow the viewer to sensorially engage with the artists’ personal connections to the places and stories they talk about. The historical concept of the art gallery supports an emphasis on visual understanding, which goes along with concepts of written (and therefore visual) authority. However, there are ways of utilizing the gallery space that promote sensorial engagement and therefore break down hierarchical inequalities of knowledge consumption, such as sight over other forms of experience (e.g., sound, smell, touch). By incorporating multiple levels of phenomenological understanding (i.e., the connection between sight and sound) into an exhibit, curators or exhibit designers stimulate the interconnections of the senses and experience. The incorporation of sound disrupts the conventional understanding of the library as a place of ‘silent learning,’ as it requires increased involvement from the viewer. Narratives corresponding to specific images are broadcast in the respective artist’s own voice, connecting the viewer to a contemporary Indigenous voice, a voice that has the authority to speak about Indigenous perspectives and the knowledge to wisely select what information he or she is willing to share. Therefore, the dialog between the artists and myself are more evident to the audience in connection to these sound clips because they directly assert Indigenous voices within the exhibition framework.
The combination of these serigraphs and the artists’ corresponding perspectives on place create new conversations around the organization of space and knowledge production, commenting on the ways in which knowledge is embodied and, in fact, performed through our being-in-the-world.
If the ways in which people organize knowledge are intricately tied to the places in which we dwell (Basso 1996; Casey 1997; Harkin; Ḳi-ḳe-in in Townsend-Gault 2000:226), then descriptions of such are in no way simple. The expressions of the experiences of place are multi-layered, much more complex than a description in a short didactic panel, says Francis Dick (in interview, August 4, 2011). She explains that in order for her, as an artist, to reflect place in her work, she believes one “has to be very conscious, very conscious of the place, of the site; very aware of what’s going on with self as you create that site and the meaning of that site to you” (in interview, August 4, 2011). Her statement reflects on some poignant concepts of place, and importantly, that representations of such places are not static; they change and transform in relation to one’s own experience and history of that place. In her print The Dragon (fig. 26) Dick reflects on a trip she made to China:
I was in Bejing for three and a half weeks, and everywhere I went—I mean on Christmas Day, I climbed the Great Wall of China—it was amazing, and so just to be there, you know, going to the Forbidden City and being on the ancientness of their territory. That place and that culture is really cool, and being able to share with them our work, what we do, and coming back and creating this dragon, because everywhere we went there were these dragons, right. So that’s about traveling to another place, another whole other country, and going to their sacred sites, their sacred places. And being there and really feeling and really trying, really connecting, being mindful, having consciousness around where you are, where you’re standing and what you’re feeling as you’re standing there. [Dick in interview, August 4, 2011]
In many cases, the experiences of spaces and places can be shared, but we must be aware that all experiences are shaped in relation to who we are as people and how conscious we are of these spaces. This quoted example of Dick’s relationship to place is significantly valuable because one of the aims of the exhibition is to make visitors conscious of the place he or she occupies. As Basso (1996) has said, the sensing of places can make us more aware of who we are in connection to that place, of our own dwelling, and of the changing state of our identities in relation to the experience of place.
IV: Prints as Learning Tools in the Transmission of Cultural Knowledge
An important operative aspect of serigraphs is their utility as a learning tool. Karen Duffek, a curator of Northwest Coast art at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC (in interview, July 14, 2011) mentioned this in our interview when she referred to the “Joe David generation,” in which many Nuu-chah-nulth artists learned about their specific art style through working with and studying serigraphs. Serigraphs pass down specific knowledge about the use of design that is specific to particular Indigenous communities. Edward Joe (in interview, August 10, 2011) explained that there are specific guidelines in design that his ancestors left for him, things need to be placed in a particular way and that “culturally, they mean something;” at the same time, he tries to make these forms new and different. An example of his process can clearly be seen in his work included in the exhibition, especially the serigraphs Fishing Adventure (U998.7.41) and Troller (U998.7.40), where he combines traditional formline designs with photo-realistic depictions. Johnny (in interview, August 10, 2011) talks about how art was used to record his Coast Salish peoples’ history, explaining that certain people were paid to witness important aspects of that history, and the art was used to reflect these events. Johnny (in interview, August 10, 2011) also explains how some of his prints reflect the current political environment for Coast Salish peoples. He uses his Ate Salmon (L010.3.404) serigraph as an interesting example:
I did one called ‘Ate Salmon.’ It’s the number eight because there [are] eight salmon heads, but the title is ‘I Ate the Salmon’—past tense. So it’s a play on words, and at that time, there was a lot of depletion of salmon, whether it was Coho or you know, any of the salmon. The population just wasn’t there as much as it was, you know, back in the 50’s, 40’s and 30’s. It was, you know, an enormous food supply, and before European contact, it was a huge food supply for the west coast. So that was kind a political statement of eight salmon, we don’t eat it as much anymore because you can’t get it as much anymore. [Johnny in interview, August 10, 2011]
The serigraphs shown in this exhibition are important markers of points in history, but also establish connections to current events and an inalienable relationship to certain resources (such as fish, land, forestry, etc.). Serigraphs, Johnny (in interview, August 10, 2011) states, are “a great way to speak from who we are—not from a book, not from a magazine or whatever. We need to personally reflect who we are.” Johnny (in interview, August 10, 2011) explains that a number of stories can be attached to a given image, and although this multiplicity may be critiqued by the art world as commoditization, it does not change the fact that these images reflect his cultural heritage. The use of one image to convey a multitude of stories or connotations reflects the complexity and dexterity of the serigraph medium.
It is extremely important to recognize, not only the serigraphs included in this exhibition, but all Indigenous serigraphs, as important expressions of Indigenous knowledge and perspective. As contemporary learning tools, Indigenous serigraphs communicate cultural knowledge about design guidelines, as well as inalienable connections between the images and the artists’ ancestry, history, lineage, and life experiences (Dick in interview, August 4, 2011). As critical contemporary engagements with concepts of place, these serigraphs challenge mainstream assumptions of the ‘print’ as a fundamentally commercial or commoditized object. At the same time as these Indigenous perspectives are being expressed in the art works, they are engaging in a critical dialogue with the audience, who are interpreting and attempting to understand that information. Therefore, the meanings in these serigraphs are not static; they are in constant dialogue, shifting in response to the bodies that occupy the physical and digital exhibition space. This follows Townsend-Gault’s (1998:41) important statement in Reservation X that “All the time all of this—what the art is and who it is for—is worked out in a continuous dialogue with its audiences.” The conversations surrounding the serigraphs represented in Understanding Place in Culture are not only about perspectives of place; they are dialogues about multiple points of access, diverse audiences, and the entwining of historical and contemporary histories and perspectives of identity.
[i] These excerpts have in some cases been reformatted and edited to suit the context of a curatorial catalogue essay. This includes grammatical and editorial changes that have been made to construct the readable document.
[ii] The artists were asked in advance what narratives they would like included with what pieces, and their selections comprise the narratives available in the exhibition and online catalogue.
[iii] I use the term ‘soundscape’ in terms of its definition as the sounds of a particular location. The artists spoke in relation to the memory, and so experience, of a particular place. Therefore, the sound is a direct embodiment of the expression of the space represented in the serigraph.
[iv] Both Sharon Fortney (2009) and Julie Cruikshank (1992) problematize the idea of representing oral histories as objects. This comes from an understanding that oral histories or stories are often perceived as having one meaning, rather than complex systems of knowledge that convey new and different meanings with each telling (Cruikshank 1992:33–34). The idea that viewers at the exhibition can access the audio repeatedly over time corresponds to this idea of multiple retellings.
[v] As is described in chapter one, place is constructive of space. It is our experiences of place that facilitate who we are and how we frame the world around us (Casey 1997).
[vi] Many of the comments written here also appear as sound clips within the exhibition itself. Further, the excerpts from the interviews with Maynard Johnny Jr. and Francis Dick are available in the appending documents to the thesis.
[vii] Peter L. Macnair shares Drucker’s rendition of the Earthquake story as follows: “There were dwarfs, who had houses inside mountains, where they enticed the unwary to dance with them and around and around and around a great wooden drum. Sooner or later he stumbled against the drum, and become afflicted with a peculiar disease called ‘earthquake foot’—every time he took a step, the ground shook” (Drucker in MacNair 2002:366).
[viii] Dick further describes her journey to find the lake in our interview. This section of text will be included in the sound clips for the exhibition and catalogue.
[ix] The Sḵwxwú7mesh Xay Temix Land Use Plan identifies Stawamus as a key restoration area, meaning that the First Nation would like to restore the location back to its natural state, which has been compromised due to the over-use and development of the area. The Xay Temix Land Use Plan is available on the Sḵwxwú7mesh First Nations webpage at http://www.squamish.net/files/PDF/XayFirstDraft.pdf.
[x]For a detailed retelling of the legend of Te Qoitcital, the Serpent Slayer that Floyd Joseph is referring to in his serigraph see Charles Hill-Tout’s The Salish People, Volume 2, 1978:75–76. There are also important records of this legend in Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano and Major J.S. Matthews Conversations with Khahtsahlano 1969: 199 and Domanic Charlie and Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano Squamish Legends 1966 (prepared by Oliver Wells).
[xi] One can think of Greek and Roman temples, or the Neoclassical design of the banks and libraries, etc. of the mid- 18th century. These are all examples of architectural spaces that conform to the values and political ideologies of a particular time and place: a glorification of the rational mind and conquest.
[xii] In terms of modern architecture, institutions are constantly undergoing renovation projects that are reflective of a 20th-and 21st-century avant-garde mentality. New star architect renovation projects allow these institutions to demonstrate that they are on the cutting edge of the most recent knowledge, taste, and developments.