- 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.
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).
- 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