Posts Tagged Haida

The Artistry of Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson is known as a contemporary visual artist but he is so much more. As a member of the Haida Nation, Robert has worked diligently to reaffirm the artistic conventions of traditional style while embracing necessary attributes of modern culture. This is no simple task.

His work spans decades and includes song, dance and ceremony – as well as all the accompanying artforms.

Working on a large totem pole.

Descended from a celebrated line of artisans, especially woodcarvers, his great-grandfather was Charles Edenshaw. Drawing on aspects of his heritage, Robert explored traditional techniques at home during a time period when the art was largely unseen. Museums amassed enormous collections of traditional Northwest Coast artistic and material culture but very little was accessible to tribal members.

A modernized bronze work.

Robert’s natural curiosity and desire to learn eventually brought him connections with notable people such as Bill Reid, Wilson Duff, and Bill Holm. Information and instruction learned from others was incorporated into his knowledge and understanding of the traditional forms.

No culture remains unchanged. We constantly infuse and adapt to new ideas and technology. Our attitudes and behaviors are also influenced by our exposure to people and objects. Even our language shifts to incorporate new ideas and concepts, words and constructs are created to make sense of change. In the history of the Pacific Northwest massive rapid change occurred in a very short period of time.

Some of Robert's totem poles.

Traditional cultures reeled from the impact of so much newness in only a couple of generations. In addition to an influx of new material culture, disease epidemics stole entire generations and the collective knowledge those carriers of culture maintained. Things were lost. Tribal descendants have been challenged to recover what they can…and they have. It is a continual journey. 

Coghlin Art Studio and Gallery offers a lovely retrospective on Robert Davidson’s early period of printmaking. In these pieces you can see the strong connections to traditional iconography and visual representation. He remains best-known for his carving, especially totem poles and masks but he also produces drawings, paintings, and jewelry. At the age of only 22 he raised the first totem pole the village of Massett had seen in ninety years and people gathered to practice traditions that had been forced into dormancy by governmental restriction and loss of cultural continuity.

In this video clip Robert explains the importance of understanding the design sensibilities of the past by looking at the Noble Woman Mask:

In this video clip Robert explains how traditional Haida lineage is traced and how great the importance of heritage can be in exploring the art of the past:

(this video is just audio for the first forty seconds)

Robert Davidson and others like him, are important participants in the process of recovering what has been lost. He says that learning the art is like learning a language. It requires more than knowing just the words, to really comprehend the whole you must learn each of the underlying parts. It is like learning to dance again. Understanding the shapes and forms, knowing the meaning behind each movement brings new life to the work.    

Argillite totem pole

Ravenous, carving

In the last few decades there has been a veritable renaissance of traditional carving, unknown since the nineteenth century. If you’d like to learn more about art of the Pacific Northwest I can recommend two starter books:

There is also a wonderful video showcasing master carvers of the Northwest called In the Hands of the Raven but it appears to be out of circulation. Should you happen to run across a volume, snap it up and appreciate.

A visit to the northwest provides ample exposure to this style of art but you needn’t travel far. Northwest artists have crossed borders and traveled far distances…you may find some of their work near where you live. Search out the authentic art and spoil yourself with the genuine article.

You won’t regret the time and effort – I promise.

Killer Whale transforming into Thunderbird, carving

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