A Quick Guide To Contemporary Aboriginal Art

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

I recently wrote an article on contemporary Aboriginal art and artists for Canadian Cowboy Country Magazine, and the depth and variety of work that is available in this genre of art is incredible. 

I have been aware of, and wildly impressed by, the incredible talent of both historic and contemporary Aboriginal artists (see my piece on Alex Janvier here) for as long as I can remember, but what surprised me was some of the traditional techniques that are still employed to create art that even I had never heard of.

For example, did you know that incredibly intricate designs are made on birch bark by folding up this fragile material and then biting it? Or that traditional embroidery on clothing and moccasins was done with moose hair (not glass beads) using a technique called tufting

The tradition, work, and talent that went into creating historic pieces — and goes into new contemporary creations — are coveted, both by private collectors and museums all over the world. 

Living in Canada, I have had the privilege of having fairly easy access to this work all over the country. Work by the "Indian Group Of Seven" is showcased in art galleries regularly, there are totem poles in public spaces, and even fashion designers are using traditional colours and language in their clothing. 

My personal favourites are the stunning carvings, masks, and sculptures that are created by Haida artists from the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. According to the Canadian Museum of History, "The decorations on the objects they created were statements of social identity, or reminders of rights and prerogatives bestowed on their ancestors by supernatural beings, or of lessons taught to them through mythic encounters with the animals, birds, fish or other beings whose likenesses were embodied in the crests passed down through generations."

Whether you prefer paintings, sculpture, prints, masks, clothing, or something completely different, you are sure to find an Aboriginal artist somewhere in North America that is creating a masterpiece guaranteed to take your breath away. 

Images from the top, left to right: Detail of "Sun Shines, Grass Grows, River Flows" by Alex Janvier ; "Spirit Being" by Jackson Beardy, 1978; contemporary Haida sculpture and masks from a gallery in Vancouver, BC; a historic Haida costume in The MET, New York City

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Ancient Art: The History of the North American Totem Pole

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Imagine that you are one of the first explorers to North America’s West Coast.

It’s early morning, and after a paddle through the still ocean water, you have docked your canoe on a grey pebble beach. The sun has yet to pierce through the thick fog, and you can see your breath in the crisp air.

There is not a soul in sight. 

The forest in front of you is lush, thick and dark. Taking a deep calming breath, you step into the green, snapping twigs underfoot and moving damp leaves out of your path. 

Bushing away an especially heavy heavy branch your jaw drops as you find yourself suddenly in a clearing with a massive, wooden sculpture that seems to stretch up almost higher than the trees, standing in the middle of it.

You had heard rumors that these monumental structures existed, and now there it was, right in front of you — a totem pole. 

Carved mostly from Western Red Cedar trees, totem poles are created by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Because cedar decomposes quickly, few examples of these massive structures from before 1900 exist today. 

These free-standing poles were symbols of individual clans, family wealth, and prestige.

Scholars believe the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands were the first to create the totems, and then the practice spread throughout the West Coast.

The meaning behind the totem poles is as varied as the cultures that make them. Some represent familiar legends, clan images, notable lives of tribe members, mortuary statues, or mark an important celebration. 

Contrary to popular belief, they were NEVER objects of worship. 

It is widely believed that the least important carving is on the bottom of the pole (hence the saying “lowest man on the totem pole”), but, in reality, the most important figures can often be found on the bottom or even in the middle of the poles! 

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North American Totem Pole