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The masks reveal their stories

Visiting curator Bill McLennan explores the Audain Art Museum's spectacular Indigenous art collection



The complex stories and cultures behind exquisite 19th-century masks and other artifacts at the Audain Art Museum, will be explored by visiting expert Bill McLennan this weekend.

Curator emeritus, Pacific Northwest, at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA), McLennan will explain what defines the different artistic styles of the many First Nations located on B.C.'s coast.

He says the aim is to take the artifacts and place them in their cultural contexts, as objects connected to living communities and ceremonies.

"Often these masks were kept in a private place waiting to come out because they are meant to be part of the spectacle or a potlatch, and everyone who was there will remember (them)," McLennan says.

"It was the legal structure of First Nations, basically, so you sit through one and agreed to what was spoken there — commitments about where you could hunt or fish, for example. Their art ties into it, which is different from how we see art today."

McLennan played a role at the opening of MOA's new Gallery of the Northwest Coast Masterworks in June, with many of its 110 pieces originating from coastal First Nations in the 19th and early 20th century.

Contemporary First Nations artists, scholars, lawyers and poets were invited to engage with MOA's collection and add their connection and memories.

McLennan says the MOA gallery has similarities to the Audain's collection.

"Michael (Audain, the museum's founder) was collecting more contemporary First Nations work, and then came some of the older pieces, such as the masks. He was bringing pieces back to B.C. and placing them in a public venue, pieces that had been in New York, or Paris, or London," McLennan says.

Famed European artists such as Picasso and Matisse were influenced by Pacific West Coast Indigenous art and McLennan says this is how many works ended up in Paris or New York, because the artists collected them.

The opportunity to see them and experience what they are in a museum setting, such as the Audain, pleases McLennan.

"In these venues, people can appreciate them and start to connect and understand the history of what was here before Europeans landed," he says.

The Audain's collection interests McLennan because of its diversity.

"Michael has a great eye for collecting. The quality of the pieces is amazing," he says.

"To see those works anywhere else, that collection of masks, I do not know where you would see anything comparable. It's a very dynamic collection."

The talk, which takes place on Saturday, July 22, starts at 2 p.m. and is free for museum members and with general admission, which is $18 for those aged 17 and older.

McLennan likes the juxtaposition of contemporary Indigenous art in the Audain, allowing visitors to compare the past and the present.

"Stepping back and studying these old pieces on their own is one thing, but bringing it into a really modern forum, there is a great connection between all the pieces," he says.

Asked how he describes the works to people who may not know much about them, McLennan says he doesn't think about them in words that describe how they look. "I think of it more in concepts," he says.

He describes an encounter between German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and Haida artist Charles Edenshaw more than a century ago.

Boas brought photos of a beautiful, abstract-painted bentwood box he found in the region and asked Edenshaw what it showed.

"Edenshaw told him it was the raven story, and in Boas' private notes of the meeting it says that Edenshaw didn't know what he was talking about because there was no raven (represented)," McLennan says.

"That story sets the whole timeframe. At that time there wasn't any other community doing that kind of abstraction. You'd get a black bird flying across the sky or walking down a pathway instead."

The oral storytelling tradition is intimately connected to this style of creativity, and artists usually had a high status because it was they who took the stories and turned them into physical forms, McLennan says.

"Such stories might have taken three days to tell in a potlatch. It's a totally different concept to what we think now about art," he says.


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