“The Raven and the First Men” by Haida artist Bill Reid is the centrepiece of the permanent collection at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. Commissioned by Walter and Marianne Koerner, the breakthrough monument was unveiled by The Prince of Wales in 1980, exactly ten years after the iconic Arthur Erickson-designed building opened its doors to the public.i
Glowing with golden wit, the masterpiece coyly depicts Creation within the confines of a WWII-era gun turret, reimagining a space designed to vanquish life into a space designed to celebrate it. Crafted of ancient cedar, the trickster Raven clutches a gigantic clamshell he’s found in the sand, one filled with the first humans: the Haidas. The Haidas don’t want to leave the safe confines of their shell but the blackest of birds convinces them to come out and play in the shiny new world.
It’s a stunningly powerful work, but it can’t help but beg the question: why is any of this “Anthropology” in the first place? Why isn’t this “Art” as any other? Particularly given the permanent ceramics exhibition down the hallway, full of fairly hideous Meissen porcelainii that wouldn’t be out of place in at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto; why is one “white-ified” and the other “endarkened“? Why aren’t Bill Reid and his forebearers considered artists amongst artists, ones of this land, as with all others living here,iii first by ancestral choice and reaffirmed by the choice to remain? Why aren’t these powerful visionaries recognised as artists defined by their mediums and messages rather than their “otherness”? Why create such “otherness” at all? Cui bono? Is it the fuerdai conquistadors making the rest of us look all #hoodrich? Is that where we really are today?iv
If so, who’s the silver-tongued trickster now?
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- During my recent visit to the UBC Museum of Anthropology, my first in perhaps 20 years, I was unfortunately unable to visit the iconic Grand Hall, which was under renovation for seismic upgrades, which are definitely a thing on the Pacific Coast! ↩
- Not that I have anything against porcelain per se. I’ve certainly nothing against de Waal, even if I did find his recent interview with Theaster Gates a bit forced. ↩
- No, I’m not a visual artist, at least not much of one, but writing, entrepreneurship, and investing are arts too. And of course I’m of this land. I’ve lived here my whole life… and the land doesn’t forget. ↩
- Not that these questions have easy answers, and goodness knows that Canadians have been wrestling with these issues for decades. How else to explain three different names in as many decades for the exquisite Douglas Cardinal-designed museum in Ottawa? ↩