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Sacred Ritual or Performance Art? A First Nation's Chief Takes Documenta


Atlakim Mask


Beau Dick’s small studio at the University of British Columbia is nearly ankle deep in wood-chips; books, tools, guitars, and artworks cover every surface. Strewn about are partially carved blocks of wood that will become part of his upcoming Documenta 14 exhibition. The show will include twenty exceptional masks. Two will be transformational — masks within larger masks — several will feature articulating parts: A loon will “swim” in the forehead of one of the masks. Dick might have been further along with the work had the giant Woman of the Woods not interrupted. Carved from a trunk of cedar the size of a small car, the mask of the famous First Nations spirit is the largest mask he’s ever made, and the costliest, valued at $80,000. “That’s the thing with Beau,” says his dealer, LaTeisha Fazakas. “When he gets a piece of wood that says something to him, he becomes obsessed with it and he works on it until the thing comes out.” Fazakas began selling his art twenty years ago, and it’s been an enlightenment — “Beau opens you up to the possibility of spirit” — and a wild ride. “You can never wrangle him. He will just wake up one morning and decide, he’s going somewhere else. He’s way tamer now. But most things aren’t important to him. Beau’s priorities are to be able to potlatch. If he wants to have a potlatch, it will happen when he says it’s going to happen. That’s because he sees the greater good in it. And that’s why he turned around for Documenta” — because at first, Dick had turned them down.

Alder Mask

When I meet the artist on a sunny day this summer, we spend most of the time outside his studio, so he can smoke. Three years ago, Dick, 61, was offered a six-month artist residency at the school, and it’s worked out better than expected. Not that he actually has a residence. The apartment part of the deal wasn’t extended; in the messy workshop, a dark curtain hides closet-size private quarters (he also calls his girlfriend’s place home). Prior to the residency, Dick lived and carved mostly in Alert Bay, a remote island village, in Northern B.C. He had no phone, computer, television, or radio.

Despite his inaccessibility, Dick has gained steady recognition and acclaim. In an upcoming feature documentary about his art, Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters, the artist and curator Roy Arden says that a contingent of “anthropologists and art historians basically agree that Dick is the best West Coast artist since contact.” Arden, a longtime friend, was able to curate one of two major exhibitions featuring Dick’s masks, in 2004, at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery. The show paired Dick’s work with abstract art to address “aesthetic apartheid,” within curatorial approaches to First Nations art. Both genres of work were powerful, soulful and uniquely expressive of a similar place and time. Since then, Dick’s masks have been collected by, or part of group shows at, select national and international galleries. The other major showcase of Dick’s masks took place more recently, at Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery, in 2015. The curators displayed twenty-four marvelous masks intended for an upcoming potlatch. Dick organized a ceremony for the exhibition opening, during which dancers brought the masks to life. After the show, during the potlatch, in Alert Bay, all of the masks were danced again, and then burned — or rather, returned to the spirit world.

Beau Dick with his Wild Man of the Woods mask

Dick descends from a line Kwakwak’wakw First Nations artists, who taught him the traditional art forms. While primarily inspired by the mythology of his culture, he breaks established rules and creates his own style, incorporating into his works any iconography, from Japanese anime to last year’s Halloween mask. His range confounds collectors who don’t recognize works as his until they deduce that no one else would dare to make such a mask. His virtuosity goes beyond uncanny facility; he has an extraordinary sense of the human face and wondrously captures intricate details of emotional expression. Many of his faces are haunting, monstrous; some are court jester-like or cartoonish; some open to reveal an inner being, honoring his culture’s belief that natural and supernatural worlds are interconnected. Fazakas says, it’s as though Dick creates “from a place outside of himself.” The artist, himself, calls his process a metaphysical experience.

It is this entrancing quality that moved organizers of Documenta 14 to invite Dick to represent Canada at the 2017 event. The international exhibition, which takes over Kassel, Germany, every five years, is renowned for catching the next wave in art and is generally regarded as an art career pinnacle. (Past Canadian participants include the photo conceptualist Jeff Wall, and the sound art duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.)

Winalagalis Puppet

But the artist sent his regrets. He was busy. Dick is a hereditary chief of his Alert Bay-based Namgis band of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation (his real name, Wallas Gwy Um, translates as Grey Whale). Next spring, around the same time Documenta 14 launches, Dick will host another potlatch in his village. The three-day ceremonial feast requires at least fifteen new masks, which will be among his finest works. Dick’s potlatch presents the opportunity for his masks to be part of sacred ritual; then he will give them away, along with other valuables of his, including money, or depending on their ceremonial cycle, they will be set ablaze. The Kwakiutl are among the few First Nations people who continue to hold potlatches, a gift giving ceremony that confers status and rank on the person who gives away the most. (Destroying wealth is another display of power — and a reason the potlatch was banned, from 1884 to 1951.) Of the tradition, Dick says, “I work hard to make money so that I can give it way. And I do it over and over again. People say, ‘you’re crazy; you could have cars and a home and luxuries.’ But that doesn’t really cut it: Anybody can do that.”

Arden says Dick’s masks are “more alive” than others and it’s because they are conceived with the understanding that they are to be danced at potlatches and other ceremonies. They are theatrical, not sculptural, not things to be stuck on a wall. While Dick also carves for the market — those funds allowing him to make other work — he feels his masks only realize their full purpose within his culture’s traditional rites.

And this is why Documenta, with which Dick sheepishly admits he was unfamiliar, didn’t appeal to him. Showing his masks bereft of context isn’t a first concern. The art world spotlight doesn’t persuade him, and he refers to the promotion and sale of his art as “dirty work.” From a young age, Dick displayed remarkable artistic aptitude, studying under Henry Hunt and Doug Cranmer, and later working along side Robert Davidson and Bill Reid. But early experiences selling his work were “harsh and demoralizing.” He recalls wandering from gift shop to gift shop, “no bus fare, pouring rain. After a while, I’d just hate to go in.” He’d ask for $1,000, “and end up with $5.” Negotiation eased considerably after he was commissioned to showcase a work at Vancouver’s Expo ’86 (the piece remains on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Quebec.) Still, when Dick was invited to Australia’s 2010 Sydney Biennale, he did not show up (Fazakas brought the four stunning masks, instead). He won, and did attend, the Shadbolt Foundation’s 2012 VIVA Awards; it’s likely he spent the entire $12,000 prize on the fantastic ceremony he produced in gratitude and good will. (The other two winners delivered speeches.)

Potlatch masks at Bill Reid Gallery  

After doing poorly at grade school in Vancouver, Dick returned home to Alert Bay, where, he says, his real education began. His elders shared knowledge, myths, and stories and he became a keen revivalist of Kwakwaka’wakw oral tradition and ceremony. Dick has said that Reid (with whom he shares distant bloodline) was also an influence in his embracement his culture and his art. “Bill came along at a time when First Nations were struggling to adjust and we were healing from the dark times when we might have been viewed as lazy, drunken Indians,” he once said. “His work brought us above that and gave us something to be proud of. He offered the rest of us experiences that helped us to grow.”

Before Reid virtually singlehandedly revived it in the mid-20th century, artistic traditions of the Northwest Coast First Nations people had virtually died out. After European contact, diseases such as smallpox decimated 70 to 90 per cent of regional aboriginals. Cultural losses due to assimilation through residential schools, which taught First Nations’ children to be embarrassed of their heritage and traditional ways of life, caused a drastic decline in production as well. The renewal of First Nations art is seen as the instigator of a wider cultural and political awakening among First Nations.

Dick’s uncle was one of the more politically charged members of his family. He’d used words like genocide and ethnocide to describe the actions of the government, and would at times suggest to Dick that they “break a copper,” an ancient shaming ritual, at the B.C. Legislature. At some point, though, Dick admits “he gave up on people. It’s all about me,” he decided. “Look after yourself, look after your family, do what you do and enjoy it.” He and his friends “just listened to music and carved, did our work, looked forward to upcoming events that we could participate in and contribute our work to.” He didn’t dwell on the politics that irritated him.

Cutting the Copper

It was his daughters, inspired by the fast-rising Idle No More movement for indigenous rights, the environment, and equality, who convinced him to follow through on his uncle’s idea. In February 2013, Dick, whose long grey hair, ubiquitous feathered hat and whisper-soft voice accord him an aura more sorcerer than chieftain, lead family and friends on a 10-day, 500 kilometer walk, from the north end of Vancouver Island to the B.C. Parliament Buildings, in Victoria. They brought a copper shield, a paramount symbol of prosperity and influence — one that’s usually gifted among chiefs. In front of thousands of witnesses, Dick delivered an emotional speech about the connectedness of everything — the central core of First Nations worldview — and urged the government to stop favouring resource exploitation over the environment. “Let us set an example for the rest of the world,” he said. Then he and others pounded the copper shield until it broke. The devalued piece was left at the front doors — a traditional dishonouring delivered for the first time in more than a century.

A little more than a year later, Dick was encouraged by Haida chief, Gary Edinshaw (Guujaaw) to conduct the rite again, this time at the Canadian Parliament, in Ottawa. Again, Dick addressed the crowd. “In breaking this copper we confront the tyranny and oppression of a government which has forsaken human rights and turned its back on nature in the interests of the almighty dollar.”

Later, speaking to the CBC, Dick said he saw the ceremonies as a challenge to all Canadians. “It’s about waking up the consciousness,” he said. “Hopefully, people will start caring more, and work towards creating a world of well-being for our children.”

Two months after the event, Dick began his artist-in-residency at the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, at UBC. As part of the deal, an exhibition of Dick’s work would be presented on campus. Some of the faculty doubtless imagined the gallery brimming with marvelous masks: A blockbuster show. Dick had a different idea.

Moo Gums (Four and Face) Mask

He and the curators created an exhibition that recounted the ceremonies. It displayed the many valuable and sacred objects—some even considered sentient and minded during the show — that were gifted to the group from communities across the country for the ceremonies, including carvings, masks, garments, and medicines, as well as the coppers that made the trips. Video footage, photographs and the speeches were also included.

The exhibition, Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity, reflected on ways ancient ceremony can be used to address urgent, contemporary issues. Critics had a field day. They debated appropriation of ritual for political or even personal gain; whether the practice of ancient rituals — which aboriginals believe were offered to them as gifts from the creator — could be considered performance art, and broadly, whether political action is an aesthetic act. And what of the placement of sacred items in a gallery? Are they still spiritual when taken out of context? In other words, the show was a resounding success.

The art critic Clint Burnham wrote in Momus:

“What is both conceptual and political about Dick’s gesture is how it works with scale, taking what was an inter-subjective or community gesture and rendering it nation-to-nation. Like The Mouse that Roared, but also like the early twentieth-century appeal from Joe Capilano and other Coast Salish chiefs to the Queen, in London; like Jimmy Durham in his attention to the object and materiality but also like Carl Andre or Gerald Ferguson (think of the latter’s One Million Pennies – more copper), in terms of sculpture and transformation.”

Thunder Mask 

Some days after Dick turned down Documenta, he started to reconsider the opportunity. What if he could perform another ceremony, one that would address spiritual imbalances in Europe, at the venue where the masks were to be displayed? Contacted again, the curators became “very accommodating,” says Dick. But at first, they wanted him to break a copper. “I said, ‘no way. We don’t go breaking copper for art exhibitions.” Dick told them he envisioned rituals that would focus on the refugee crisis, the failing economies, climate change.

The curators agreed to support him in bringing 20 people to perform two key rites of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, which roughly translate as the Under Sea World and Forest Spirit ceremonies. Their mythology brims with beautiful beasts and heroes and is detailed and complex, but essentially both rituals deliver messages that are foundations of First Nations philosophy: Take care of each other and take care of the planet.

“Now, we can show the masks in their true context,” says Dick. “And to be able to give First Nations people a voice in what’s happening in Europe, that’s important to me. Now you’ve got me hooked.”

Copper Cutting journey

Next year’s Documenta takes place in two cities, Athens, Greece, starting in April, and Kassel, Germany, launching a month later. Dick and his select group of dancers, singers, artists, matriachs, and chiefs will perform rites at both. In Athens, these will take place at the Acropolis, in the Parthenon’s central sanctuary. Before the ceremony, the group will conduct a sacred pipe ritual to connect the physical with the spiritual world and to invoke the First Nations’ profound bond with nature — earth’s caregivers, if you will. “Blowing smoke at this monument to empire — to agriculture, industrialism, military power, everything that lead to the monetary system and corrupt values: That’s a dream,” says Dick. “There’s hope inside all of us. That’s what will be revealed there.”

On the secluded bench surrounded by shrubs behind his studio, where Dick smokes, he has finished his cigarette and is now onto a joint. He gave up drinking decades ago, which precipitated a four-year crack cocaine addiction. The pot doesn’t seem to affect him whatsoever. Though he’s quiet spoken, he’s a generous and engaging speaker. In junior high, he took a drama course, “and they loved me, because I’m not scared. I’m always willing to perform. Even though I’m somewhat of a hermit, when I get on stage you can’t drag me off; I just let loose.” The curator Arden wrote in the catalogue to his CAG exhibition: “When Dick tells a story, it is clear he is a born actor, and that dramatic or poetic sensibility inflects his carving.”

Dick says he creates with the idea of preserving the supernatural inspiration of the work. “The pieces come from magic. There’s something invisible in the masks. If they come from a place that’s supernatural, obviously, they’re going emulate that.”

Beau Dick portrait, 1988

Many artists attempt to explain creativity. The divine act, the truth of art, genius, fate. Patti Smith says she requires only the right gesture, or the right setting, to bring her into contact with mystical currents. Dick’s mentor Robert Davidson once said, “After you have put in twenty thousand hours of work into your art eventually everything is intuitive and comes from the subconscious.”

In the documentary, Dick tells a story about an old-growth block of wood. (Again the film project took some convincing, but Dick agreed, seeing it as a way to educate; beautifully directed by Natalie Boll and Fazakas, Meet Beau Dick will be distributed by Cineplex next year, according to Fazakas). The chunk of wood remained in his cabin for months, until one day Dick spoke to it: “I asked, in my playful voice, ‘What do you want to be?’… And poof! This image appeared of a crooked beak… I grabbed the wood and attacked it, started hacking away. Chips are flying.” After the second day, when the form appeared, he’d “nailed it.” But he has no idea how it happened. “It wasn’t me. Something else made it.”

I ask Dick to elaborate on the ‘something else’ that turned that block of wood in to an eagle.

“It’s mysterious. I saw it with my own eyes,” he grinningly offers. “My hands did it but the wood has its own way of becoming what it wants to be. Even mishaps: It’s the wood; it wants to be something else. I often say, the paintbrush knows where to go. You just have to be there to hold the brush and somehow guide it.”

You need to be talented, I suggest.

“You need to be open to it,” he exclaims. “That’s the thing!”

I picture “the spirit in the wood,” as he describes it, guiding his tool on an adventure. Sounds like good times. “It is,” he agrees. “I’ve heard of artists who have blocks, they are frustrated because they don’t know what to do. I don’t have that problem. There’s always something to do. It comes to me and I’m fortunate to be able to be open to the spirit of creativity.”

Then I see Dick’s hands, every joint thick and hard with calluses and consider the constant physical effort required to carve large pieces of dense, old wood, compared to painting or to playing his guitar. “It’s demanding,” he says. “It’s pushing and pulling and tugging and chopping, heaving. Even smaller ones. Hollowing them out is a pain. Most artists dread that part of it.” He fast became proficient with power tools. “I’ve seen artists create whole sculptures with a chain saw, getting really fine texture. I wouldn’t go that far.”

Inuit Weather Mask

The artist shares the work with his apprentices, these days including art students at UBC. Dick’s says teaching is a way to “carry on the legacy” of his mentors Cranmer and Reid, who also taught at the school. During the first six months, he lectured on the potlatch and First Nations beliefs. “It was so fulfilling,” says Dick. But by the end of the term, he was exhausted, and hadn’t created enough art. The faculty wasn’t keen to part ways, however. The impact was too strong. “They asked me to stay longer and I said, sure, I’ll stay as long as you want.” Now, his job description is “just to have my door open.” Word has spread of the sage on campus. He’s visited by students and professors, not just from the Art Department, but from Forestry, Fishery, Social Work, Psychology, Medicine, Law, Education and Political Science.

Scott Watson, head of UBC’s Art Department, says in the film: “He’s knowledgeable about many things, but what he’s knowledgeable about, that I think is so valuable at UBC, is how to be political — how to be an activist, how to be an artist, and how to belong to a culture. Students find him to be an inspiring figure. He’s this delightful mixture of charm and mischief, who always makes you feel very alive in his presence.”

When Dick and I finish our talk, and I’m about to leave, he thanks me, and then says, “you have a lot of ultraviolet light. That’s a good thing.” I have no idea what he means, but I’m open to it. WM


Nancy Lanthier

Nancy Lanthier writes about cultural events for The Vancouver Sun.

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