For contemporary artist Robert Davidson, the art is the catalyst: how it is perceived, what it provokes, and what it can teach. Davidson, whose Haida name is Guud San Glans (Eagle of the Dawn) was born in Alaska in 1946, and moved with his family to Old Massett on Haida Gwaii in 1947. He comes from a long lineage of artists, the most notable of whom was his great-grandfather, turn-of-the-century artist Charles Edenshaw.
Recognized as a distinctly innovative artist, Davidson works across a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, drawing, and masks, and can take significant credit for asserting Haida presence within contemporary art practices, eschewing forced narratives from colonialism, and the degradation of historical carvings as tourist curios. “I try not to focus on whether [my art is] traditional or not,” Davidson says over an early morning coffee in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant. “I did hear from one person that for a certain show it was too traditional, and then from the same person it was too contemporary,” he adds, laughing.
Davidson marks the first time he saw the power of art in the Haida community in 1969, when he and his family raised the first totem in Massett since the 1880s. “When I erected the totem pole in 1969, it opened the door for the elders to pass the incredible knowledge that was muted,” Davidson says, taking a sip of his coffee. “Before the totem pole was raised we had no idea of their knowledge. I had no idea that the art was so important. But it was the catalyst,” he notes, soft-spoken and pensive.
He describes this moment as the major turning point in his career as an artist. At the time of the totem’s raising, he had already begun studying at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) and was being mentored by Bill Reid in Haida sculpture and design. In Vancouver at that time, Haida art, and Indigenous art more generally, was not considered on par with Western artistic styles. “It took a few years before [we were] accepted as fine art,” he recalls. “When I first came to Vancouver there were only four shops that sold native art—‘art curios,’ ‘cabinet crafts,’ that’s what they were called.”
His own exploration of Haida art became about confirming its rightful place within the context of contemporary art practice: critical, personal, and engaged. “In order for me to converse in Haida art or Northwest Coast art, I needed to understand the standard,” he explains. “What I thought were very limited creations [in Haida art], the more I learned about it, it paralleled with all the other fine art of the world.”
Emblematic of this artistic approach, Davidson’s 1983 piece, Every Year the Salmon Come Back (now part of the National Gallery of Canada collection) was the work that demonstrated he was developing a visual language within the Haida tradition that was completely his own.
“I started to think of it as a vocabulary, like the alphabet,” he says. “Once I learned the principles, once I learned the standard, I started to think how we are just recycling the old masters. Then I started to experiment within the principles of the art, and I started to think about the art never reaching a peak, but artists reaching a level of excellence. I started to create within and expand my work, but not thinking that I am expanding Haida art.”
Davidson’s individual, yet holistic approach to his work was vividly captured in his 2014 solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum titled “Abstract Impulse.” Largely comprised of works created since 2005 and exploring abstraction and formalism, the exhibition investigated, dissected, and re-assembled the stylistic elements of Haida art. The museum setting, where questions of authenticity and Indigenous ownership are placed squarely at the centre of dialogue, brought its own poignancy.
Davidson’s current work is more overtly political. “In the past, while I’ve been making statements, they’re subtle, they’re not in your face,” he notes. “And now, it’s more to ask questions so people [are forced to] answer that question themselves. For example, I have some new pieces coming out and one is titled, What Will be Left for Our Grandchildren? There is so much rush to exploit the natural resources, and [people] just don’t get it.”
Included in that question is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose decision to greenlight a controversial LNG terminal on B.C.’s North Coast has angered the Haida Nation. Famously, Trudeau bears a tattoo on his arm based on one of Davidson’s art works. Even though Trudeau did not ask permission to have his art reproduced in this way, initially the artist took it as a hopeful sign of the government’s intent to change the way Indigenous peoples had been treated. Since the LNG announcement, though, Davidson has been vocal in his discontent. “I hope [the tattoo is] a reminder to him of the promises he made, because he has to look at it every day,” he says, noting Trudeau’s initial commitments to green policies and Indigenous peoples’ rights.
Davidson received the Order of Canada in 1996, and has been awarded honorary degrees from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Victoria. Through his prolific body of work, it is fair to say that Davidson has been an instrumental voice in reaffirming Haida art in the 21st century.
His work has opened up so many doors, not only to personal creativity, exploration and discovery, but to a shared history. “I don’t know how Canada feels about it but there was a real shameful muting,” Davidson says of the history of Haida Gwaii. “When you looked at a map of Haida Gwaii there were little dots—and that’s what was allotted to the Haida people. The reserves. No access. We were herded into this little corral and we didn’t have a voice.
“Now the art is helping us and I’m really happy to be part of that voice.”
Read the rest of our Summer 2019 issue.