TAKING BACK THE TOTEM POLE
Five years ago, Shawn Hunt picked up a paintbrush for the first time. Since then, Shawn has progressed as an artist with remarkable speed and success. He has shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the McMichael Collection; he is represented by a local commercial gallery, Macaulay Fine Art; and most recently, Canadian Art Magazine called his upcoming solo show at Macaulay Fine Art one of the top seven Canadian art events to catch this spring. As I chat to him while perched on the couch in the studio he shares with two other artists in the heart of Mount Pleasant, he tells me about the ideas behind the show.
“The show is called ʻArtifake.ʼ It makes light of a word that is used a lot to describe Native art,” Shawn elaborates. Shawn is of Heiltsuk background and grew up in a First Nations community on the Sunshine Coast; his father is a well-respected carver, and before starting up painting, Shawn was a jeweler and carver himself. In short, Shawnʼs art practice is directly informed by his First Nations background and the visual culture and traditions that accompany it.
“When you look at work of European descent, we donʼt refer to that work as artifact—we just refer to it as artwork. However, work created by my people at the same time would be referred to as Artifact. Iʼm using that word subversively to try to direct your attention towards that aspect of the Native art market.”
Shawnʼs discussion isnʼt just limited to the art market, though. Art market aside, B.C.’s tourism industry banks on First Nations visual culture as a selling point of the B.C. experience. Just take a stroll from Gastown to Stanley Park: youʼll see First Nations art adorning doorways for unrelated businesses, shops trading in haphazardly identified Native wares and tourists ogling at totem poles taken out of their proper contexts. The tourism industry positions totem poles as awesome emblems of B.C. meant to ʻwowʼ visitors; not only does this positioning exoticize First Nations peoples, but it also subordinates the richness of their culture, already seriously attacked and damaged by Colonialism. All that considered, it comes as no surprise that the totem pole is particularly central in Shawnʼs upcoming show.
“A totem pole has become a symbol, whether we like it or not. Itʼs the iconic image of the Northwest Coast,” Shawn explains. “Especially in British Columbia, the totem pole has become something my people have lost control of. This show will cause you to not only look at the totem pole differently, but it also lets me as a Native person and carver of totem poles take back that symbol.”
For example, one of the pieces in the show is an upside down totem pole cheekily called ʻFlipping the Bird.ʼ “We all know what flipping the bird means, but an upside down totem pole also looks like a cross, so itʼs an interesting dynamic,” Shawn tells me.
However, it takes a particular awareness of the complexity of issues surrounding First Nations culture in B.C. to understand why Shawn is taking back the totem pole. Although Shawn sees this show as a self-empowering way to take back ownership of key aspects of his culture, he knows that not everyone will ‘get’ it—and Shawnʼs OK with that.
“I like to make my audiences work a bit,” he explains. “If anything, I hope the pieces initially confuse. Itʼs a catch and hold situation— I want to catch the viewer, bring them in and have them think about it. My whole thing is not to give you answers—my role is to be the provocateur.”
In this case, a little provocation isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it may be exactly what B.C. needs to understand the significance of taking back the totem pole.
‘Artifakes’ opens at Macaulay Fine Art (293 East 2nd Avenue) on Thursday, May 22nd from 6-8 pm.
By Polina Bachlakova