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April 01 2017

Northwest Coast First Nations Art is Vital and Ever-Changing

Art & Antiques

An article in Art and Antiques examines the visual language of First Nations art from the Pacific Northwest Coast. Despite its ancient history, Native art remains ‘vital and ever-changing.’

As the author notes, formlines — the distinctive system of curves, lines and certain shapes with their own set of visual rules — epitomize the shared artistic heritage of Northwest Coast First Nations. Although the term itself was coined by artist and scholar Bill Holm in 1965, the style appears on Native Northwest Coast art dating back two or three millennia. From early eighteenth-century bentwood boxes to Charles Edenshaw’s (ca. 1839–1920) exquisite silver bracelets and a contemporary screen shown in the background of a 2006 film by contemporary native artist Nicholas Galanin, ‘formlines became the visual signature that marks native Northwest Coast art and declares its heritage.’

Despite its ancient history, Native artists have continued to evolve their visual vocabulary and style. Traditional systems of representation were also translated into new media, among them argillite, glass, prints and bronze. As the author describes, the diverse virtuosity of Northwest Coast First Nations artists can be gleaned from the holdings of Donald Ellis Gallery. Rather than imposing a rigid time cutoff, the gallery currently shows an early 1980s gold transformation necklace by Bill Reid, a direct descendent of Edenshaw whose work is also championed by Ellis, alongside a bent-corner box hailing from the northern Northwest Coast that days to around 1750 and a Tshimshian animal-shaped wooden crest headdress dating to around 1840.

Ellis, who opened his eponymous gallery in 1976, reports that he has seen the audience for Northwest Coast First Nations art broaden over time, ‘extending past the region and the United States and Canada to the world at large.’ Contemporary Northwest Coast First Nations art is also flourishing. Learning the rules of Northwest Coast visual language from their elders, a new generation of native artists is becoming more experimental in their approach and freer in their choice of media. ‘Northwest Coast native art should enjoy a bright future,’ the author concludes.

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 Northwest Coast First Nations Art is Vital and Ever-Changing