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Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt embeds cultural reference to a sea serpent in Lunar New Year lantern design

Richard Hunt by Emily Hunt Kwakwaka’wakw
Order of Canada recipient Richard Hunt is one of several high-profile artists whose designs will appear on lanterns for Lunar New Year in Vancouver. Photo by Emily Hunt.

Dragons are often depicted as sea serpents in many parts of the world. So, it’s fitting that Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt included a sea serpent from his culture on a Lunar New Year lantern. His design is among eight large artistic lanterns in šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery) welcoming the Year of the Dragon.

Hunt, a member of the Order of Canada, reveals that he created My Family III about six months ago.

“I made a sun mask with an eagle’s face, but the face turns into a flower,” Hunt tells Pancouver by phone from his home in Victoria. “There are two hummingbirds on each side of it, taking nectar. There are two trees underneath the wings of the eagle.”

On the left is a bear with a cub. On the right is an eagle with copper hanging from its mouth. The artist explains that copper is a symbol of wealth.

“They’re both standing on top of a two-headed serpent, or Sisiutl, which was my mother’s crest,” says Hunt, who’s also a member of the Order of B.C.

Sisiutl is a legendary two-headed serpent in Kwakwaka’wakw culture. It’s often represented in art with three heads. Hunt’s father, a famed carver himself, told his son that the face in the middle is a person whom the sea monster ate.

This marks the second consecutive year that Hunt’s artistry has been displayed in The Lantern City exhibition in šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square. Last year, his painting, Victoria 2018, was on one of the lanterns. It represented the cone of the B.C. legislature as an octopus’s head. And it included a totem pole similar to one carved by his father near Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Kwakwaka’wakw
Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt’s My Family III is part of The Lantern City exhibition.

Representing Kwakwaka’wakw heritage

Hunt originally created My Family III as a four-foot by six-foot plaque for a dentist in Victoria. When Hunt designs a large piece like this, he begins by drawing it at scale—in this instance, an inch to a foot. My Family III, like Victoria 2018, draws upon his heritage, including in the vegetation.

“The cedar tree was used for everything by our people—from diapers to coffins to canoes to houses,” Hunt states. “All the other figures are crests that my family owns and rights that my family owns and my people own.”

He mentions that his Kwakwaka’wakw name is Gwe-la-yo-gwe-la-gya-lis

“It means a man that travels and wherever he goes, he potlatches,” the artist says with a chuckle.

As he approaches his 73rd year, Hunt looks back on his life with a great deal of satisfaction. As an artist, his career highlights include creating a five-metre orca and three-metre thunderbird at the Vancouver International Airport domestic terminal. He also joined fellow artists Eugene Arima and Tim Paul in carving an 11-metre Indigenous whaling canoe at Expo 86 in Vancouver.

In addition, he’s celebrated on the “Wall of Fame” at Victoria High School. Hunt tells Pancouver that he was born in Fort Rupert and moved with his parents to Victoria when he was two years old. His father worked with another celebrated carver, Mungo Martin, at Thunderbird Park beside the Royal BC Museum.

Richard Hunt’s design is on the lantern at the far right on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Advice for young artists

Hunt feels that he was lucky to get hired as an artist in his early 20s to work alongside his father.

“The day that I became his assistant, he quit,” Hunt recalls. “He said he had promised Mungo that there would always be one of us there—people from our village. And now that I was there, he didn’t have to be there. He went out on his own.

“My dad was a great carver,” he continues. “He was very fast. He could carve a mask in two days and almost make his salary for the month from the museum.”

As the interview draws to a close, Pancouver asks Hunt if he has any advice for young people who dream of becoming artists.

“I would tell them to get a real job,” he replies. “Graduate and become a part-time artist. Once your art gets in the way of your job, then become an artist. But you know, if you go right from wanting to be an artist [into trying to be a full-time artist], you can be a starving artist for a long time.”

Visit Richard Hunt’s website at richardhunt.com. My Family III is part of The Lantern City exhibition called We are a Family. It’s at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north of the Vancouver Art Gallery) until February 28. The Lantern City exhibitions are also at Jack Poole Plaza, the Pendulum Gallery, and Ocean Artworks on Granville Island.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.