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Vancouver Art Gallery celebrates Haida artist Robert Davidson with major exhibition

Robert Davidson, T-Silli-AA-Lis, Raven Finned Killer Whale, 1983, screenprint on paper, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Young

Haida artist and elder Robert Davidson certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humour.

During a recent media tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the famed painter, printmaker, and carver remarked on how it felt to see so much of his art in one location.

“Holy shit—it’s time to take a day off,” Davidson quipped, eliciting enormous laughter.

The new exhibition, entitled Guud sans glans Robert Davidson: A Line That Bends But Does Not Break, includes prints and paintings spanning decades.

His Haida name, G uud Sans Glans, means “Eagle of the Dawn”, which helps explain the exhibition’s title.

The VAG’s Smith-Jarislowsky senior curator of Canadian art, Richard Hill, and associate curator Mandy Ginson selected and arranged the artworks. It begins with a single carved work on the title wall.

Hill told reporters that this piece highlights the history and relationship of the graphic tradition in Haida art to carving.

“It also signals two really important colours in traditional Haida visual colours—black and red—which are also themes that run through the show,” Hill added.

Robert Davidson Occupied 2007
Robert Davidson, Occupied, 2007, screenprint on paper, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist

Davidson part of Northwest Coast revival

In his introductory remarks, Davidson revealed that when he was a child, there was no art in his community of Masset on Haida Gwai. A group of his contemporaries had to study old masters’ works in museums.

“We were born to bring back the puzzle,” Davidson said. “I always wondered what the puzzle was. The puzzle was really to regain the knowledge of my grandparents’ generation.”

The residential school system and draconian Indian Act regulations nearly obliterated that knowledge. Starting in the 1880s, the state seized kids from their homes across the country and forced them to live in church-run institutions to purge them of their heritage. The government also banned various cultural activities.

Around 150,000 Indigenous children went through these schools over more than a century. Many thousands died before they could ever graduate whereas countless others endured horrific abuse.

“My parents’ generation suffered for that blow of not knowing where they came from,” Davidson said. “But fortunately, we had a strong connection to our grandparents’ generation.”

This enabled Davidson and others to relearn art and its meaning through ceremony and dance. During the tour, Davidson revealed that he heard his first Haida song at the age of 16.

“One of the first Native songs we were taught in elementary was ‘One little, two little, three little Indians’. There was not mention of any of our Haida songs at all in the schools,” he said. “That’s how far removed we were.”

At the age of 22, Davidson carved a totem pole in Masset. It was the first one raised in his village in early 90 years.

He didn’t realize at the time that members of his grandparents’ generation feared going to jail for doing this.

“I didn’t hear the story until, actually, just recently,” Davidson revealed. “That’s how much we were controlled by the Indian Act.”

He added that he’s so happy that his people are now free. Then he mentioned how inspired he is by the next generation.

At that point, Hill interjected to say: “They have a head start because of the work people like you did.”

Robert Davidson, Untitled, 2013, acrylic on canvas
Robert Davidson, Untitled, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Artist, Photo: Kenji Nagai

Exhibition shows artist’s evolution

The first section of the exhibition features some of Davidson’s early prints. Hill pointed to one image of three frogs, noting that at this time, the artist was copying the old masters and coming to grips with their traditions.

From there, according to Hill, Davidson demonstrated an “incredible ability to innovate within that visual language”.

Davidson then revealed that in 1981, he started to paint on drums. Prior to that, he was doing line drawings that he developed into prints.

“I didn’t realize that painting was so much more spontaneous than my pencil drawings,” he stated.

Until that point, he felt that he had just been recycling ideas.

“So I went back to the old masters,” Davidson said.

One artist, in particular, had expanded the idea of formline. This entailed introducing new shapes within any given shape.

“I was really taken by how he expanded his knowledge of the artform,” Davidson continued. “I used his innovation as the springboard to where I am at today.”

One of the most striking aspects of the exhibition is a large room nearly filled with paintings done entirely in red and black. The only exception is one work of art with a little bit of green on it.

In the next area, Davidson’s work includes many different colours.

Here, Davidson recalled how many members of the Haida nation were keen to have sacred blankets with their clan’s crests. He noted that formlines were much thicker on this regalia.

“I was able to adapt that same technique for the paintings,” he said. “At first, I drew on paper but there was too much erasing. I found it a lot easier to do the templates on butcher paper.”

In the exhibition, there is an example of the butcher paper for VAG visitors to see.

Davidson pointed to different works in this section, explaining their meaning.

With a smile on his face, Davidson signaled to a vertical painting, then mentioned that there’s a word in the Haida language for “wintertime”. This one included some white stretching upward.

“In those days, the snow was so high that you did number 2 standing up,” he joked.

Then he referred to another work, noting in a more serious tone how a person’s soul is connected to their body by a thin line. In another square image, he translated a Haida word for two working together, like a bow and arrow.

On the back wall was a colourful green painting with two heads, a reminder to Davidson that his wife is a Gemini.

Hill said that the video in this part of the exhibition enables visitors to follow all the stages of Davidson’s work from early sketches to finished paintings. “You really can kind of see it happening in front of you.”

Robert Davidson The World is as Sharp as the Edge of a Knife
Robert Davidson, The World is as Sharp as the Edge of a Knife, 1993, screenprint on paper, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Mr. Derek Simpkins

The Vancouver Art Gallery is presenting Guud sans glans Robert Davidson: A Line That Bends But Does Not Break until April 16, 2023. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @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.