Red: A Haida Manga – Communicating Both Within and Without the Bigger Picture

Red: A Haida Manga – Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2009)

When speaking about Haida manga, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas explains that this new form he created is a response to monumental art – pieces so large and full of meaning that their scale can overwhelm their observer. He wanted to give the viewer a way in to a more intimate relationship with a monumental piece. Manga provided a convention to allow him to carve up his larger vision and storytelling painting into smaller panels, reproduced as single pages in a book. The reader can linger or flip through, reading at their own pace, appreciating the beautiful watercolours, and paying attention to all the details that contribute to the narrative.

But he doesn’t want you to stop there. In an afterword, he encourages you to tear the book apart, two copies actually, so that you can reassemble the monumental work, creating “a composite – one that will defy your ability to experience story as a simple progression of events.” Why not simply include a fold out at the back of the book with a larger version of the composite piece? Asking the reader to destroy the book to create something new further demonstrates Yahgulanaas’ whole-hearted commitment to the accessibility of art. The book itself is not a precious object. The act of communication is the point. Tear this thing apart and get to experience story in a whole new way, a way that will make you question how communication works and how stories can be told.

Yahgulanaas is often described as “playful,” but this goes far beyond play. Red is a radically humanistic approach to art, communication and storytelling. Not only has he demystified the object d’art itself, he has created a hybrid form, with roots in many traditions – a Haida story and aspects of traditional Haida art like ovoids, u-shapes and animal-humans mix with some Japanese stylistic influences like Kabuki face painting, and are realized in Chinese watercolour techniques. The composite is overlaid by thick-lined Haida totems that read as manga panel divisions in its deconstructed book form. This hybridization speaks to another of Yahgulanaas’ goals: to talk to both Natives and non-Natives alike and remind us that Indigenous cultures are not monuments or artifacts from the past – they are alive, breathing, relevant, and evolving.

The story of Red is based on a true story, one that Yaguhlanaas has the authority to tell because of his own family ties to it. He has chosen to share this story outside his own community. This decision would not have been made lightly. Red’s story illustrates that when it comes to justice and reconciliation, vengeance, xenophobia, and violence can only bring about tragedy for all involved. We need to open a dialogue and try to understand each other. With Red: A Haida Manga, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is making the first move. How will we respond?

Melissa McDowell

One thought on “Red: A Haida Manga – Communicating Both Within and Without the Bigger Picture

  1. My intention with this critique was to work on a piece of criticism less focused on my own personal impressions of the work and more on what I felt was the context for its optimum understanding and appreciation. My own personal reading of Red was improved immeasurably by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ visit and discussion with our class. My intended audience was not necessarily the classmates I experienced this with, but a wider audience of potential readers of Red who haven’t yet picked it up. I thought about what insights and information would have helped my comprehension and absorption of this work on first read and aimed to provide those for an imagined first time reader. It was an interesting exercise. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether this was successful or useful.

    I think most of the art criticism I read is impressionistic. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. It is often a fun and satisfying read, particularly when the writer has a talent for bons mots Reading another person’s perspective can certainly raise questions in one’s own mind about approaching or interpreting a piece. But I find myself a little seduced by the idea that criticism has the potential for more, that it can be an avenue for political and social analysis. That said, I’m also reminded by Susan Sontag not to go overboard in looking for socio-political meaning in a piece…

    I’m still working through things but the more I think about criticism, the more impressed I am by all of its possibilities. It’s like a problem you can never resolve. Who am I talking to? Academics? Other critics? Genre enthusiasts? The general public? What is my focus? My own impressions? The context of a work and its relation to societal trends or other works in its genre? Its form, structure, technique or its content? How do I interpret its content? How did this piece make me feel? What did the artist do or not do to illicit those feelings?

    So many questions. And when one has a guideline of 500 words, one has to figure out pretty quickly which ones to focus on and which ones to discard for now.


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