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July 05 2006

An Extraordinary Exhibition of Northwest Coast Treasures

The Vancouver Sun

A featured article written by Michael Scott for the Vancouver Sun reviews Past to Present: Art of the Northwest Coast, a collaborative exhibition between Donald Ellis Gallery and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. The exhibition places more than 80 historical and contemporary Northwest Coast First Nations works of art in dialogue with each other. ‘It is this pairing of old and new that makes Past to Present such a blockbuster show,’ the author extolls.

Following two years of concerted acquisition and research, the exhibition showcases contemporary First Nations art by Dempsey Bob, Sonny Assu, Robert Davidson and Susan Point, among others, alongside historical photographs, carvings, weaving, baskets, bentwood boxes and chests from a number of coastal groups. It is ‘a stupendous show,’ Scott writes, ‘— a commercial presentation of museum-grade Northwest Coast objects on a scale that has never been seen here before.’

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition Raven Travelling ‘venerates the treasures of the Haida nations’ by raising these objects to icon status, the author comments, but it ‘also separates them from us, protect them behind glass or hanging them out of reach.’ By contrast, ‘the Equinox show reminds us that the aboriginal people of the Northwest Coast though of art as part of daily life and these objects are meant to be handled (respectfully, of course), even now.’

The works on show are historic treasures, valued at an excess of $3 million. A complex articulated Kwakwaka’wakw dance mask representing an orca, for example, is one of only twenty-five examples known, and the last one to remain in private hands. 

In another part of the show, a pair of masks by renowned contemporary artist Dempsey Bob is paired with a Regency-stye armchair by Heiltsuk (Bella Coola) master carver Captain Richard Carpenter (Du’klwayella). Made over a century ago and once part of the permanent collection of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Dempsey Bob commented that the artist took more artistic risks than him and his contemporary colleagues. He was totally influenced by the news,’ he is quoted as saying. 

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An Extraordinary Exhibition of Northwest Coast Treasures