6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum

  1. The pile of drums in one corner of the Audain Art Museum is a piece by Indigenous artist Sonny Assu. Curator Darrin Martens explained on his tour that this piece was called ‘57 things’, and that there were 57 drums, one for each year the potlatch was forbidden, and I thought, ooh, that’s good.  I wrote it down.  Later, however, I learned that the piece is not called ‘57 things’ after all– it’s called Silenced: The Hidden.

the hidden

2. I decided to use that information to write a piece for our class blog called 57 things      about our field trip to Whistler. But then I googled artist Sonny Assu and realized there is no basis to the ‘57 things’ idea.  The piece is indeed representing the years the potlatch ban existed, but that was 1886-1951—67 years.  I counted the drums in my photo and that seems to be the number.  (67 is way too many things for a blog though.  Hence my title of 6 – 7).

  1. There was another Sonny Assu piece in the gallery, same theme, and this one is in fact called 1886-1951:


I remembered seeing it at Audain and looking around for the title and artist name and not finding it. It’s only now that I’ve googled Assu that I know it’s his.  Again, the 67 years of the potlatch ban are represented, this time by coffee cups (the status symbols of modern Vancouverites); they’re made of copper because that was a valuable material the Kwakwaka’wakw people used to share.  The cups have been abandoned on a Hudson’s Bay blanket that depicts the colonialism the Kwakwaka’wakw people were forced to endure.

4. When the curator was asked if the First Nations whose masks were displayed here had been consulted on how to display them, he said “I had no time to do that.” I could feel our entire class collectively wince at this answer.  The curator did, however, tell us that the museum makes time and space available for First Nations who want to borrow or use the masks that tell the story of their heritage.  Magnificent!   I want to assume the nations have been told that they can do that, and hope they borrow these pieces and share them if they find them meaningful.

5. The new First Nations masks by a variety of artists and the pieces made by Brian Jungen out of Nike Air Jordans and golf bags are a hopeful wonder. I saw there some of the same cheekiness we read about in Michael Yahgulanaas’s work and I want to see more.

6. Stephen Waddell’s large photograph Termini, stopped me dead in my tracks.


 It’s not First Nations art but it’s also not out of place here; old women wearing plaid blankets and plastic bags on their feet overload their wheelchair cart, and arguments could be made for themes of excess, and shame, and ignorance and relentless progress in this picture.  But the truth is I’m drawn in because I know Waddell.  We went to high school together and he was funny and smart.  Thirty years ago we went on a day long date to the PNE and then shared a kiss the night before I moved away to university and I never saw him again….

 7…. and I think I was supposed to contact him when I came back to visit and I never did. I didn’t make time because I was a dumb teenager. So, while I apologize for this overly personal reflection and weighty metaphor, I will say this: as the Audain Art Museum curator stated, the role of art is to create a dialogue and to communicate.   It’s easy to fail and to let things slide since we’re all busy.  But learn the names of the pieces in your gallery and the pertinent information about them.  Make names of artists and art easy to find.  Open that dialogue with the nations whose masks are displayed at Audain.  Maybe you were too busy before. Start now.

  • Cathy Collis


3 thoughts on “6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum

  1. Excellent commentary Cathy – the criticism of the gallery and curating well deserved. I had very much the same reaction as you; the 6 – 7 points are very germane to the conversation and certainly not too personal at all; what you experienced in that gallery stirred a reaction and memory – what every artist hopes for, n’est-ce pas? (The Waddell photograph, Termini, was taken in Rome, at the central railway station – on last year’s Italy trip, many of us were in and out of that station area numerous times and invariably confronted by versions of this very scene.) The homelessness situation in Italy is possibly even more disturbing than here in Vancouver, where the visible linkages to substance abuse seems to protect us from confronting the incredible despair and erosion of human dignity; the Termini piece removes that distinction; we are looking at two elderly women, not drug abusers, simply homeless. your friend has a brilliant eye.
    It was disturbing to see just how much the Audain gallery seemed to reflect the owner’s world view, or to be more accurate, what I, the visitor and viewer took away, was this was all about personal ownership and the ability to spend a small fortune in order to display the “cabinet of curiosities”. The artists works were displayed in such a way as to be the lesser players; like you, I never fully understood the ’57 things piece and couldn’t find the necessary information as we moved rapidly from room to room. I was reminded of a most excellent display of young Aboriginal artists works at the Vancouver Art Gallery, last year I believe, which was boldly curated to display each work to best advantage, and provided detailed artist statement and biography. (as a result, I am still thinking about some of those pieces and can remember the artists…………Brian Jungen was one of them).
    Regarding your point #4 – my notes reflect the curator telling us that First Nations are welcome to “access” the masks, “they will be granted access, with sufficient notice”, i.e.”a private room and access with the mask in order to be with it”….not the same as borrowing.
    The fact that this is the only gallery in Canada dedicated to BC Art is encouraging. Liked the EJPratt and loved the photography and modern indigenous art. Pity such an enormous gender imbalance in artists on full public display. Bravo to the architects, beautiful building. The challenge will be to raise the level of content to match the level of the exterior statement.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Cathy, thank you for your post on 6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum. While I enjoyed browsing at the wonderful artwork that has come out of BC and admiring the beautiful architecture and forested setting of the newly built museum, I left the museum with mixed feelings.

    Your point #4 is dead on – I definitely winced when the curator responded that he didn’t have “time” to consult with the Aboriginal peoples on displaying the artwork. In addition to his response, there didn’t seem like a plan to involve them for future restagings of the exhibition. What left me most baffled in the first gallery room was the lack of recognition given to the Aboriginal peoples on the placards beside each piece. No mention of the artist carver, or the nation from which the artwork came, could be found, only information on how the museum acquired the artwork.

    Considering the political spotlight put on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) over the last few years, and its Calls to Actions from the 2015 TRC Final Report, I am surprised that the Audain foundation would open a museum specifically showcasing BC and Aboriginal art without the consultation of the Aboriginal peoples.

    After decades of taking away the voices and rights of the Aboriginal peoples, the TRC is the Canadian government’s step towards making amends and bringing awareness of a difficult past. However, a part of me felt that the museum’s lack of consultation and recognition was a step backward rather than forward for the Aboriginal peoples. Overlooking the people who actually created these works, as well as the cultural significance of the work, really removes the voice of the artists, and their right to recognition.

    Perhaps, I am a bit biased and being overly sensitive since I work directly with our Aboriginal student population at SFU. The university’s internal reconciliation committee has put out its own calls to actions, the first and foremost being decisions pertaining to Aboriginal projects or policies must be done with the consultation of the greater Aboriginal community at SFU. Given today’s political climate and sensitivity towards Aboriginal matters, I assumed consultation and recognition for all things Aboriginal would naturally be implemented. I suppose I shouldn’t assume.

    To end on a positive note, all of the artwork at the museum, at face value, was absolutely gorgeous. The colours, expressions, and artistic details, were such a treat for the eyes. I love how the museum is quietly nestled in the forest but easily accessible to the vibrant energy of the village. Whistler is such a great place. Being so close to the city, I should really spend more time there.

    Liked by 1 person

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