In his talk on May 16th, 2017, Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ proved that an artist, no matter how globally celebrated, could be authentic and accessible. He expressed worry that the art might lead art gallery patrons to feel diminished because of the literal scale and figurative power of the art. Arguing for dialogue between artist and audience, he gave us permission to remove the artist’s authoritative position. He argued for the removal of a primary horizon in art.
Yahgulanaas’ attempt to undermine a primary horizon is best expressed in the interactive “Bone Box” piece he exhibited at MOA. This piece’s playful form mirrors its playful content, since it encourages interaction while featuring the Trickster character and visual puns. Still “Bone Box” addresses the dark colonial realities of cultural appropriation and desecration of graves, since the material likely held the looted remains of First Peoples. Yahgulanaas finds the thin edge between playfulness (which he believes is primary to artistic engagement) and serious issues of colonialism; he allows us to have works with multiple horizons and multiple tones.
Yahgulanaas’ consistent iteration that some stories are his to tell and others are not, acknowledges the issue of appropriation which has become a key concern within and alongside the Aboriginal communities. Throughout, Yahgulanaas continually acknowledged the coexistence of multiple cultures within Canada. He expressed worry that Haida art’s scale might diminish observers as though they were visiting a cathedral. His egalitarian and irreverent approach to art was a huge relief and profoundly charming. His ability to acknowledge privilege and exclusivity, while also discussing the display of his works at the British Museum and MOMA dampened my cynicism.After reading our excerpts from Wyman’s The Defiant Imagination, I noticed a distinct contrast to Yahgulanaas’ tone. While Yahgulanaas and Wyman both address society at large, Wyman’s text evokes the Royal We. He seems conflicted in his aims- at once trying to inspire unity (and cultural allegiance against the American “threat”) and dignifying the diversity of voices within Canada (23). Unfortunately, in Wyman’s work this paradoxical stance is not identified, and thus the text’s approach appears muddled.
Some of the assumptions upon which the The Defiant Imagination relies are plain inaccurate. When Wyman claims that Canada is a society “built” upon “compassion and shared values” (8), he perpetuates Canada’s identity as a nation of peace, order and good government. The characterization of Canada as a cooperative bastion in a sea of human rights abuses is simply historical revisionism. Participating in these narratives, dismisses the myriad groups who have been mistreated and abused throughout our history, and upon whose suffering Canada was built. In contrast, Yahgulanaas’ talk acknowledged the paradox of commonality coexisting with individuality. In his narratives, he addressed the ugly underbelly of his own heritage arguing that he needed to own the fact that his own ancestors traded slaves. Rather than historicizing fascism (as Wyman does) Yahgulanaas acknowledges Canada’s current fascistic tendencies. Wyman’s overarching aim may be cultural inclusion, but positioning Canada inaccurately may have the unintended effect of further alienating Canadians who feel marginalized from the arts. In contrast, acknowledging historical wrongs and conflicting identities offers a more authentic entry point into cultural expressions.