By Jamila Pomeroy
VANCOUVER – When the practice of tattooing and potlatches were banned in 1885, many Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest turned to clothing and jewelry to display their family crests and, ultimately, their culture. These forms of artful culture expression remain on the forefront in display of Indigenous culture today — Body Language is the first art exhibition to fully explore the rich artistry based in tattooing, piercing, and personal adornment on the Northwest Coast.
“Body Language, when I think about it in the simplest terms, is about Indigenous peoples resistance and resilience,” says Dion Kazsas (Nlaka’pamux), curator of the new exhibition to be featured at the Bill Reid Gallery. The installment highlights Indigenous cultural revival through tattoos, piercing, and practice of the craft. Artists featured include Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a), Nahaan (Tlingit), Corey Bulpitt (Haida), and Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk). Kazsas explains there is a whole range of art from the very traditional, to contemporary, all echoing these themes of cultural revival, resistance, and resilience.
“The reason it’s called Body Language is because we have all of the forms of embodiment that Northwest culture is embodied in. For example, we have button blankets, raven’s tail weaving, pictograph, photographs, masks and or carvings, and then other paintings. So there is a whole combination right from coiled cedar root baskets coming from my own culture, right to contemporary paintings by Corey Bulpitt. I think that’s why it is appropriate to have it in the venue it’s in. You know, Bill Reid, and the legacy of Bill Reid in the Bill Reid gallery is to bring forward contemporizing the traditional art that has been practiced.”
When exploring one’s culture, it’s next to impossible to avoid questions of identity. Kazsas explains the questions and exploration of Canadian Indigenous identity are deeply seated in the governing and political treatment of the culture. “The issue of identity is always associated with the political structures that have tried to fracture Indigenous identity. The reason I use the word resilience and celebration is because we have come through multiple generations of Indigenous folks who have had to fight against the legislation violence of the Indian Act, the residential school system, child welfare separating Indigenous children from Indigenous communities, smallpox and the epidemics, and then, of course, the land theft.”
Despite the attempted erasure, assimilation, and dismantlement of Indigenous culture, the art featured speaks with an embodiment of it all, fighting back artistically to the bounds of their oppressors. “We have tried to weave all of this things into, how is it part of the visual culture, here in the Northwest. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a tattoo, a carving, or a button blanket — they all speak to who [Indigenous people] are.”
Body Language runs until January 19, 2019 at the Bill Reid Gallery.