April 30 – June 26, 2016
Opening reception: Sunday, May 1st from 2-5pm
Contemporary Native Art Biennial, 3rd edition
Culture Shift – Une révolution culturelle
Guest curator: Joyce Millar
Artist in Residence – Luke Parnell : One Line Creates Two Spaces
Stewart Hall Art Gallery
176 Du Bord-du-Lac – Lakeshore Road
Pointe-Claire (QC)

Text by Joyce Millar

Indigenous, aboriginal, native are all words that describe or identify a tribal or ethnic origin and culture. But among other synonyms for indigenous, is the word original, meaning not only first, but also unique and innovative. This play in the meaning of words (in any language) leads one to the notion of perception. And nowhere is this more acute than in the reception and acknowledgement of preconceived notions of colonial narratives vis-à-vis the art of aboriginal peoples. While traditional modes of representation of the diverse cultures of the First Nations that inhabited this vast country called Canada are highly regarded and preserved as part of an honoured heritage, contemporary indigenous artists engage and peruse other agendas – a cultural shift is at hand. Theirs is a highly personal response to the social and cultural trappings of past histories, perspectives and interpretations. Fully ensconced in the twenty-first century, they seek means of safeguarding their ancient cultures within the context of art actuel – the results are a fascinating juxtaposition of histories and images that provoke, dismiss, and question assumptions and perceptions.

The Stewart Hall Art Gallery is pleased to welcome Luke Parnell as Artist in Residence, in conjunction with the Third Biennial of Contemporary Native Art (with Galerie Art Mur, the Canadian Guild of Crafts and the McCord Museum). Parnell is an artist of Haida and Nisga’a heritage who explores the traditional form lines and myths of these cultures located along the Pacific Northwest Coast, and reframes the narrative, creating new perspectives. In works such as A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design (2007, Collection: National Gallery of Canada), Parnell acknowledges his ancestral past. But rather than focusing on the collision of cultures and divergent views, he creates, through his art, a new language to articulate the complex histories and lived realities of the First Nations. Using a traditional Raven bentwood box design, Parnell has transformed the image onto eight panels, altering the surface treatment on several panels in reference to historical events: the first contact with explorers and settlers, while the white-washed panels refer to the time of attempted assimilation of natives by the government as a means of dealing with the “Indian problem.” The final panels offer a renewed assertion of self-identity and preservation for the future.

During his six weeks as Artist in Residence at Stewart Hall, Parnell is continuing his quest for meaning and understanding in the blending of past and present. His project is two-fold: part creation (the carving of a totem pole), part re-creation (the retracing of an historical journey). In his artist statement for the project, Parnell refers to an event in 1957 in which a group of archaeologists, along with Haida artist Bill Reid, then a journalist with the CBC, produced a documentary film, Rescuing Timeless Totems of Sgang Gwaay, on the savaging of decaying ancient totem poles on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). Focusing on the so-called death of Indigenous culture (an inaccurate notion as native artists continued to produce art even during the years of forced assimilation), the poles were relocated to the grounds of Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia for display and study. What followed was a “renaissance” of Northwest Coast native art in the 1960s, led by Reid, Bill Holm, and Wilson Duff, among others.

Parnell’s two-figure, eight-foot totem pole carved during his Residency, is a symbol of his lineage and a marker, not only of his time at Stewart Hall, but in the tradition of totem poles, a marker of territory. As Parnell writes …totems were never meant as museum curio’s they were meant as markers for territory, so you can imagine the mixed message the totems sent as Haida Totems on Coast Salish territory (the Museum of Anthropology sits of Salish land). Parnell’s totem figures represent his main clan crest: the bottom figure, a Beaver holding a broken stick; on top, an Eagle. A horizontal “cut line” carved between the two figures, indicates the point at which the artist will saw the totem pole in half.

This splitting of the pole will enable Parnell to re-create, or fulfill, the second objective of this residency project – the documenting of a modern-day journey of transformation in spirit the 1957 destruction into reconstruction saga. But obviously with a significant difference – one that is paramount to the non-aboriginal understanding of the complex interrelationship of art and life for indigenous people. Following the residence, the physical aspects of this journey will see the artist carry half of the carved totem on his back in a knapsack, from his home in Prince Rupert to the Museum of Anthropology site. The totem will subsequently be moved by the artist to an unknown location and burnt.

In the past, as Parnell explains, objects considered of value were destroyed to show the wealth of the people, coppers were thrown into the ocean, chilkat blankets were cut and canoes were destroyed. This entire act is to show that I, a simple carver, have the wealth of culture to destroy a valuable cultural item… While the 1957 project was about rescuing cultural objects from a dead culture… my journey is about celebrating our survival… and showing the wealth of Indigenous culture.

The Stewart Hall Art Gallery is honoured to share in the unfolding of this very personal, yet significant spiritual experience – one that is bound to resonate in the present period of renewed commitment on the part of all Canadians for reconciliation. The very nature of history is subjective. Each individual’s story provides the means to explore multiple viewpoints and parallel narratives. Luke Parnell, as a First Nations artist, seeks to engage with the non-indigenous world, examining ways in which cultures can interact, communicating the vitality of his heritage, not only as objects of the past, but as a living, active culture to celebrate.

On behalf of the Stewart Hall Art Gallery, I would like to thank Luke Parnell for his guidance and enthusiastic support throughout all stages of this project – from my initial studio visit in Vancouver to the workshops and presentations in the Gallery. His generosity of time, patience, and the passion in which he interacted with the Gallery visitors, answering hundreds of questions, all the while keeping to a tight schedule of carving, is most appreciated. This second Artist in Residence project at Stewart Hall was made possible by a generous grant from the Doggone Foundation, Montreal, under the auspices of The Friends of Stewart Hall. I would like to express by sincere thanks to the Foundation, and to William McLennan, curator emeritus at the Museum of Anthropology, and a director of the Foundation, not only for his expert advice on all aspects of Northwest Coast art but for giving me a delightful guided tour of the Museum’s collection. In addition, McLennan’s knowledge of the work of contemporary Native artists was invaluable in selecting the perfect match in Luke Parnell for our Artist in Residence. My final note of appreciation goes to Céline Le Merlus, curator, and Manel Benchabane, manager of Stewart Hall Art Gallery for their support and collaboration on this exciting project. A warm thank you to all.