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During the groundbreaking Charles Edenshaw exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2013, poet Colin Browne found himself returning often to study three large argillite (slate) platters carved by the Haida master in the late 1800s.
Produced several years apart, each of the platters presents the same scene: in a Haida canoe, Raven holds his spear at the ready, his bracket-fungus helmsman is wedged into the stern, and below the canoe a figure hovers. Where are they going, and why? And who is the bracket-fungus helmsman? Browne begins by tracing his family’s lives in a small village on Vancouver Island. He explores the Surrealist attraction to the Indigenous arts of the Northwest Coast, the tragic results from colonial incursions and government policies, and the extraordinary achievement of Haida artists during a century of radical change. He encounters a story with a teaching that is as profound and relevant today as it was when Da.a xiigang, Charles Edenshaw, learned it in his youth. And he finds in Da.a xiigang’s art a deeply personal and moving response to the arrival of the modern world.
Colin Browne’s Entering Time: The Fungus Man Platters of Charles Edenshaw is an extended, often poetic, meditation on the three argillite platters created in the late nineteenth century. In this newly published book, Browne ranges through the fields of art history, literature, ethnology, and oral history to discover a parallel history of modernism within one of the world’s most subtle and sophisticated artistic and literary cultures. Here on Meta-Talon, read selections from Chapters Five and Six, excerpted from pages 71–90 of Entering Time.
Chapter 5: Three Argillite Platters
[Charles Edenshaw,] Da.a xiigang’s three Galaga snaanga [Fungus Man] platters are rarely exhibited together. The 2013 exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery provided a glorious opportunity to study them side by side.12 Comparing the faces of the three startled helmsmen, I was reminded of The Scream, by Da.a xiigang’s contemporary, the Norwegian Edvard Munch. Painted in 1893, shortly after the platters were carved, Munch’s expression of his own distress has come to represent the suppressed anguish and rage lying beneath European civilization. Like the helmsman, Munch’s wraith-like figure addresses the view directly. I would nominate as well Wolfgang Paalen’s wood sculpture Projét pour un monument (Project for a Monument) of which there are two examples. The first, made in 1945, is taller than the other, which was carved in 1948.2 Each sculpture consists of an elongated, upright ellipse fixed to a semi-elliptical wood stand as if balancing on one of its pointed ends. Although the works are formally abstract, the eyes and mouth, which forms a long oval scream, are not, creating a powerful tension in each piece – and an undeniable expression of dismay.
The opportunity to look from one Galaga snaanga to the other raises a question about chronology. Which platter came first? There is no evidence that they are sequential. Although they are clearly variations on a theme, there is no indication of a formal progression. The Seattle and the Dublin platters share similar elements; one might guess they were carved in proximity, at much the same time. The Chicago platter is unlike the other two in terms of the formal organization of the figures in the canoe and the nature of the creature beneath it. Those who have considered the chronology have tended to assess formal sophistication, the assumption being that Da.a xiigang would have become more adept over time at solving the formal problems presented by each of the tableaux. Perhaps he gained a deeper insight into the nature and the motives of his characters from platter to platter.
Raven on the Chicago platter is more man than bird. He has a beak and a mouth, and no feathers on his body, although an abstracted feather shape extends from his right elbow consisting of a U form followed by tapering lines that meet. His hands are talons. Attached to his neck or back are the two angel-like wings with ovoid eyes – one eye parallel to the horizon and the other vertical. His knees appear above the gunwale.
On the Dublin platter the wings extend from his back and on both platters one can see his arms and shoulders clearly, although as McLennan and Duffek note, “the Raven’s shoulders continue to be represented as though both arms were attached to the front of the body.”3 He has feathered legs and claws.
On the Seattle platter, Raven is more bird-like than mortal. He seems to have a double chest, one of which is feathered, one of which is spotted. He has a bird’s tail and bird’s claws, although he is equipped with a human nose as well as a beak. In keeping with the avian manifestation, Da.a xiigang places his wings more or less where they would be on a bird; the human arms appear rather mysteriously from beneath the wings, a solution we must accept, for Raven is supernatural. He is transformation incarnate. His touch is an apocalypse.
Each of the platters excites its own moments of wonder and recognition in those who see them. The subtlety and dynamism of the carving on the Seattle platter suggests to me that it is the “finest” in terms of workmanship, while the graphic power of the Chicago platter is admirably direct and unforgettable. The Dublin platter is the only one to show Raven glancing at the struggling Galaga snaanga in the stern. This look establishes an emotional connection between the two, and because it suggests character development, should it be an argument for the Dublin platter as the most recent? As an artist returns to a subject in a series, and resolves formal problems, the implications of the relationships portrayed become increasingly apparent. With Raven’s backward glance on the Dublin platter, we catch an unexpected glimpse of that supremely independent and confident bird’s self-conscious vulnerability. It is a moment of truth, an unsummoned admission that even Raven – the boaster, the incorrigible thief and seducer – must learn to trust and depend on the goodwill of others.
Chapter Six: Below the Canoe
… On each of the platters, Raven, the bracket-fungus helmsman, and the spirit of tsaw [the Haida word for female reproductive organs] may be seen as three vertices of an inverted equilateral triangle. Their triangulation, or theatre of three, determines the platter’s circumference, which is to say the bounds of the known universe. With the potential strength and steadiness of a tripod, they hold the fate of the world in their hands, claws, talons, teeth, and fins. They are all that stand between creation and oblivion. On two of the platters, the figure who is meant to keep the canoe steady is losing his balance. Should he tumble overboard, the quest will fail. The Haida world will be stillborn. I have a sense, however, that the spirit of tsaw, with its powerful force, is a kind of talisman, a reminder of the enduring reciprocal bond between the human and the supernatural worlds.
The appearance of tsaw sgaanagwaay as talisman may have meant something more urgent and immediate to Da.a xiigang. He carved the first Galaga snaanga platter less than twenty years after the first devastating waves of smallpox, and the disease had not yet been eradicated. In a letter to Franz Boas in June 1901, John Swanton wrote, “I have just learned that small-pox has broken out in Alaska, and has been brought to the Skeena. Charlie Edenshaw has been quarantined.” Families were still in peril. The few hundred who survived the first epidemics had been struggling with depopulation and the collapse of family, social, and governance structures. In order to reconstitute themselves within the transition to colonial modernity, they needed strong sons and daughters. The scenes on the platters may have raised knowing smiles, but Da.a xiigang’s themes of fertility and renewal would surely have resonated with those striving to rebuild their communities. Seen in this light, the platters themselves may be seen as talismans dedicated to the perpetuation of the Haida Nation. Da.a xiigang cannot have carved them without thinking of his family and the children he and Kwii.aang had grieved for over the years.
And what is one to make of the idea that the perpetuation of humanity depends on the interplay between a randy bird (Corvus corax), an anthropomorphic bracket fungus without a paddle, and a manifestation of female sexuality so powerful that it feels like a supernatural force? The scenario implies that evolution is governed by hazard, caprice, and unbridled appetite. And yet Da.a xiigang’s platters project a sense of bemusement. To be bemused is to find oneself overtaken by a muse, by enchantment. And in the deep river of enchantment that is Xuuya Kaagang.ngas, there is a profoundly distilled account of life and its origins. Da.a xiigang may be asking us to recognize that the renewal of the world cannot proceed or succeed without the re-enchantment of the world.
1 See Charles Edenshaw, ed. Robin K. Wright and Daina Augaitis, with Haida advisers Robert Davidson and James Hart (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery; London: Black Dog Publishing, 2013), 58–60.
2 Wendi Norris, Philosopher of the Possible: Wolfgang Paalen (San Francisco: Gallery Wendi Norris, 2013), 30, 36.
3 Bill McLennan and Karen Duffek, “Placing Style: A Look at Charles Edenshaw’s Bracelets through Time.” In Charles Edenshaw, edited by Wright et al., 207.
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