Contemplating Contemporary Art: Michael Nicoll Yaghulaanas at SFU’s Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre

Yahgulanaas’ art engages in social commentary and offers us a post-modern glimpse into our visual culture. How can art disrupt our perception? What makes art more accessible? Why is art relevant?

I’m listening to Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, contemporary artist and political statesman, touch on collective, connected interests in amongst a larger, global community. He readily ties in conversation a range of current issues from climate action to missing indigenous women. While simultaneously, he embodies the tradition of First Nations’ oral history and the lineage of story telling.

A broad public interest in the media of comics, graphic novels, animated cartoons, anime, manga, and computer/video games continues to grow exponentially in contemporary art production. Yahgulanaas’ Red 2009, a classical Haida story in its hybridized form combines Northwest Coast design elements and Japanese manga, is a marker or spirit of its time. It plays on the perceptive shift from a book into a mural; and transforms from a series of formline templates into a collective artwork.

In the theatrical space of the SFU’s World Art Centre, Yahgulanaas asks us to question monumental art. The exploration into a first draft sketchbook to new commissioned work has us look at the fluidity of the collective whole in relation as a book into a large-scale mural. The detailed frames of the story, each with captions in text and designs in watercolour, are abstracted forms of Haida manga showing the artist’s discipline and intensive practice of the accessible, comic form.

When Yahgulanaas references a mobile artist engaged in the world, he speaks to those technological advances and the responsibilities of being connected. Our freedom as a viewer to choose how to engage with collective artworks has links to the traditions of large-scale works. Totem Poles carved and not yet raised gives us pause to see sections of formline designs in more detail when laying a work horizontal. Similarly, a Chinese landscape in a scroll form with sections visible to the viewer at any one time can also focus on a selection of details that delights and creates intimacy in contemplating works.

In a story or the larger, gestalt ability to acquire and make meaning out of a chaotic world, it goes beyond the sum of its parts to a shared human understanding. A work in progress from 2013 is an apt analogy of Haida crests of clans interconnected in a circular form with no primary horizon line. By deliberately engaging with the drawing to turn it either in a counter clock-wise or clock-wise fashion, there are multiple points of viewing.

Yahgulannaas’ rights and privileges to tell First Nations’ stories are on the legitimacy of his lineage. In bridging the Haida story through an “exotic other”, it firmly holds a universal truth there are shared conditions of self-interest, revenge and tragedy when it presents itself. We bear witness to the stories we hear and the telling nature of our collective history in our everyday lives that is deeply woven into the fabric of our cultural heritage.

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