Tradition / Progression
In art forms around the world, the tension between the opposing drives of tradition and progression, the established and the avant-garde, raises debate, passion and blood-pressure amongst collectors, critics and artists. Truthfully, a living art cannot exist without both extremes.
Within the sphere of Northwest Coast art, the push and pull between new and old is particularly immediate and intense. For some, preservation and continuation of traditional forms in the art is linked directly to the preservation of language, dance, and respect for elders and ancestors. It is the foundation of culture, and to stray from it is to lose touch with one's origins. Others are of the opinion that innovation is the means by which an art form maintains its vitality and freshness. Innovators resist doing the expected, the known, and prefer to experiment with new ideas and materials to create something that reflects the society of today with all its good and bad. In this exhibition, we take the best of both sides of the debate, and seek to find the fine balance that shows the great strength of Northwest Coast culture, respectful of tradition and the achievements of the past, yet with an eye to the future and its possibilities.
One of the first works collected for Tradition/Progression is a perfect example of this balance. It is an outstanding bentwood bowl, begun by the late master artist Art Thompson, and completed by his apprentice, Morris Sutherland. Art Thompson was one of the driving forces behind the revival of traditional Nuu-chah-nulth art, and yet, over the course of his career, building on a thorough knowledge of the fundamentals of Nuu-chah-nulth design, he developed a unique, innovative style. Now, Morris Sutherland is carrying on Thompson's tradition and will build on it in turn.
The continuity between generations is readily apparent in many of the works included here, and a number of the artists are related to each other, emphasizing the importance of family ties in passing on knowledge of artistic styles and techniques. The Hunt-Henderson lineage is one that has been instrumental in carrying Kwak waka'wakw art forward for multiple generations. There are several pieces from this family in the exhibition, including Bill Henderson's classic Thunderbird & Sisiutl crest pole, and George Hunt Jr.'s progressive South Wind mask.
Interestingly, it is often outsiders to Northwest Coast culture that are most resistant to change in the art, with preconceived ideas of how this mask should look, or that dance should be performed. Within everyday practice, there is a constant influx of ideas and influences that precipitate change. Witness Reg Davidson's suite of masks, Royce and his partner Mercedes. They are variations on the fool mask, and provide comic relief between more weighty performances. Their purpose is entirely traditional, firmly rooted in history, yet their presentation is entirely modern. They are characters that every generation can identify and relate to directly.
Innovation in art manifests itself in many ways, however, not just in the formal qualities of the works. For time out of mind, weaving was the sole domain of women, but Tsimshian weaver William White, formally, a self-proclaimed traditionalist, has thrown out convention and become one of the foremost Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers of his generation. He works on the balance point between tradition and progression.
It is good to note that the push and pull of new and old crosses generational boundaries in unpredictable ways. It is readily apparent that this debate will continue into the future, in the hands of a new generation of young artists. The Inuit Gallery is committed to continuing in our own tradition of showing the work of active, contemporary artists, and to provide a venue for new ideas and venerable traditions.X