The Gund Collection: Contemporary and Historical Art from the Northwest Coast

Another Northwest Coast art exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is The Gund Collection: Contemporary and Historical Art from the Northwest Coast, from the estate of George Gund III and features thirty-six contemporary and historical First Nations objects.

The First Nations objects include nineteenth century masks, feast bowls and argillite carvings (these are carvings done on black slate material called argillite and only found on the island of Haida Gwaii). These carvings are of mythical spirits, animals, family crests amongst others. The exhibition comprises historical works by
Haida, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nisga’a, Nuu-chah-nulth, Tlingit and Alaskan artists, and also some contemporary works by First Nations artists Ken Mowatt, Norman Tait, Bill Reid and Robert Davidson.
Masks from the Gund Collection
Masks from the Gund Collection

Northwest Coast art is very symbolic. The images represent animals and figures from crests and stories. The terminology for outlining the structures and animals is called formline.  Artists use formline, ovoids and U – forms to create their designs, following  strict rules of composition that are passed down from generation to generation. The formline designs are akin to a language with a visual grammar. An example can be seen in the video below.

The main role of the masks is to enable the supernatural world to be visible. Each mask also has a special dance and story associated with it. I do have to admit that I find some of the masks rather terrifying and would definitely not like to run into someone wearing on late at night! But I do admire the amount of work that goes into making these traditional pieces and just hope that the younger generation continues to learn these traditions that their elders pass on down to them. I know from many local stories sadly that this is a bit of a problem.

Mask from the Gund Collection
Mask from the Gund Collection

Personally I think First Nations art is quite difficult to understand because it is so symbolic and the cultural connection is something that has to be learned. After living here on the Northwest Coast for nineteen years now and having seen a variety of these art objects over the years: totem poles, door posts, archways, masks, canoes, etc., I have realised that the message that these artifacts convey can differ, depending on the order or hierarchy in which they appear on the item.

Reference List

Haida Jewellry. The most basic elements used in Northwest Coast Formline Art. [vidcast, online] 03/02/2014. 0 min 54 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4jVVvv6b_E (accessed 11 November, 2015)

Bibliography
The Gund Collection: Contemporary and Historical Art from the Northwest Coast and Next: Christos Dikeakos. Teacher’s Study Guide, Fall 2015 [online]. Vancouver Art Gallery. Available from: http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/pdfs/sg_gundcollection.pdf [Accessed 11 November, 2015]
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