Bill Reid

by Doris Shadbolt,
ISBN: 0888946066

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Wunderkind of the Haida
by Stephanie Farrington

In a country struggling with issues of land claims and rights of self-government within aboriginal groups, it is impossible to publish a book on any aspect of Native life without making some sort of political statement, however subtle. The recent reissue of Doris Shadbolt's book, Bill Reid (with a chapter added after Reid's death last year), is a political act that is, at first glance, entirely positive, but that on closer reading becomes problematic.

I wish I could tell you to rush out and buy this book. Conversely, I wish I could say, avoid this volume at all costs. As it stands, neither statement can be uttered with complete conviction. Bill Reid is a beautiful, loving tribute to one of Canada's major artists. It is sumptuously illustrated and a pleasure to have on the living room coffee table. Doris Shadbolt's commentary on Reid personally and on the classical Haida style, considered by scholars to be the pinnacle of the West Coast Native art tradition, is illuminating and well-written. Nevertheless, this is a book about a contemporary Native artist and, as such, it carries a political debt that goes unpaid.

Within the Canadian art establishment, Bill Reid is the one Native artist who stood out as a great master, in the traditional European sense of the term. Credited by the academic establishment with the revival of the Haida art tradition, Reid's power to draw serious attention and respect to artists working in traditional Native idioms was mythic. With his death at the age seventy-eight, the world of the First Nations art ended a significant chapter.

The re-release of Doris Shadbolt's weighty volume has no doubt been timed as a kind of elegy to Reid. It stands as a way of making certain the art world will not forget this substantial figure. For that, it is a laudable effort.

Shadbolt's book is long on detail. The author elaborates on the stylistic traits of Haida art with depth and assurance. Her experience as a curator and her knowledge of her subject make Reid's story mesh fairly well with some valuable critical insights into the artist's work. Very few art historians would venture to put forth a theory about the shape of the ovoid and its use in Native art. Shadbolt does so with credibility. In the process, she makes sense of some stylistic traits that seem purely decorative to the untrained eye: "Whatever cultural secrets future anthropologists will find to have been encoded in the ovoid, surely among other meanings is the possibility-no the certainty, since it is immanent in the form itself-that it is at once the container and the forces energizing it that would break out. The ovoid obeys the primal dicta of symmetry, frontality and containing, but at the same time it is a sprung rhomboid, compressed and held in tension by its swelling sides, whose rounded corners and curving top and bottom form a running perimeter of running energy which the Indian artist exploited to the full. This moving perimeter band swells and narrows as it flows, heavier at the top, thinner at the bottom, rounding corners more easily and more abruptly; it is, as one might say, bound into its dual function as a maker of a containing shape and as a carrier of the linear energy."

As far as sentence structures go, Shadbolt's are less than admirable; nevertheless, with this passage, she explains something important about Haida art that is seldom articulated and well worth knowing-namely, that the ovoid is not merely a formal motif, but also part of the mythic function of the piece. The ovoid refers to the containment of energy/spirit/life within the piece of art itself, as well as within the animal forms depicted. That insight alone is worth the price of the book.

In his lifetime, Reid must have been pleased with the contents of this book. As a biography, the book is thorough to the point of being less than engaging. I'm not sure we, as readers, really want to know about Reid's years as a broadcaster in Montreal, and even if we did, there is hardly room in this volume to flesh out the biographical details with the kind of colour necessary to make them an engaging read. Readers looking for an art book may find themselves sifting through the personal details for some relevance to the art; readers of the biography could be frustrated by the lack of detail concerning the events of Reid's life and baffled by the chapter on Haida style. As it stands, the book is neither fish nor fowl.

It could be argued that the public has a short memory. It is important to establish Reid's place in the pantheon of Canadian masters before the public forgets who he was. It is gratifying to see the new chapter covering the end of the artist's life. However, if there was time to write an entirely new chapter, then there must have been time to fix the rest of the original manuscript. Most of the book is written in the present tense, as though Reid were still alive. Reading these chapters while knowing the artist is dead is unsettling. And then there are the editing mistakes.

Maybe Shadbolt's editors think art books are bought solely for the pictures. That would go a long way toward explaining how it was possible to overlook the references to Reid as a living artist for most of the book and as deceased in the final section. It does not, however, explain obvious and confusing errors in labelling photographs. The kinds of mistakes made in production might be understandable in a magazine or gallery catalogue; in a coffee table book, they are inexcusable.

Do not misunderstand-this is an elegant volume. The plates are beautiful, the colour superb, even the dust jacket is witty and subtle in design. The cover shows Reid's famous "Raven And The First Men" sculpture from the Museum of Civilization. Inside the overleaf, there is a picture of Reid sitting with his arms around his knees on the floor. If you open the overleaf, it becomes apparent that the artist is sitting and gazing on his own creation. It is a subtle and amusing touch that smacks of the West Coast sense of humour. And the choice is perfect since Reid's clan was the Raven clan. Late in the book, Shadbolt explains a little about Raven and the observant will make the connection: "The Raven is chief among those already familar ones whom he has interiorized. The fact of identifying the clan to which his grandmother belonged, and being the `hero' of Edenshaw celebrated in so many of his carvings, gave Raven a privileged place in Reid's bestiary from the beginning. For Reid, that place became consolidated with Raven's emerging character as the original wunderkind whose world-shaping, wonder-making transformations had nothing to do with pious good intentions but emerged from an improbable but fortuitous creative intuition coupled with a detached and open self-interest. A toughened survivor without illusions, able to cope with all the unpredictable life hurled at him, the Raven-perhaps the first existentialist-presents a world that cannot be reduced to a neat system since it is by nature illogical and unintelligible. Reid, in full ironic and delighted awareness, finds this trickster a creature capable of being his hero..."

However, inside, where a plate is first referred to as the woman in the moon and later as the man in the moon, and where the titles to a few plates seem to be absent or misplaced, the mistakes are as clumsy as the cover is deft.

And then there are the politics. Clearly, Bill Reid is owed the respect of an elder in his community and then some. In his lifetime, he did more to increase public appreciation for Native art than any other individual artist. The Hunt family is well-known in academic circles, as are Norval Morriseau, Daphne Odjig, and Alex Janvier (and several others); but none command the kind of public attention Bill Reid has drawn. Like so many people denied their culture in childhood, Reid returned to his Haida roots with the fervor of a convert. He became an exemplar of Haida tradition and we, the public, loved him for it. However, Reid's life was not only important for what he brought to the public eye, but also for how he marketed his work, and for those he trained, in Native tradition, to take up his role after his death. To discuss Bill Reid in a vacuum is to deny his cultural identity as an artist and as a Haida. Native artists, as much as, if not more than, colonial artists exist within a long and intricate cultural context. Perhaps Shadbolt's biographical notes were meant to convey this aspect of Reid's life; however, since she is speaking to an audience that is largely unaware of these traditions, the biography is not enough. By writing the book as she did, Doris Shadbolt has succeeded in giving Reed a large measure of venerability within the Western European tradition; in the process, separating him from his colleagues as she does, she has taken him out of his West Coast context.

Where are the references to Reid's artistic descendants in this book? Why does the book end with Reid's funeral as though Haida art has closed up shop now that Reid is no more? And where are the references to Haida style as it is today compared to the style practised by Reid-a style that, while elegant, is also relatively conservative? I also have some concerns about publishing so much detail about Reid's final resting place: if the artist went to the trouble of leaving his English name off his grave marker (apparently in an attempt at anonymity), why point it out in print?

There are chapters to which I will return with pleasure, feeling that I have gained a greater insight into Haida art than I had before reading the book. Nevertheless, I will not forget that placing Reid in the position of a dead European master is doing his cultural heritage a disservice. There are no contemporary oral sources from his community; nobody speaks for Native tradition. If you publish a book on Bill Reid's life, then you should publish a book on Bill Reid's legacy. The sources available on contemporary Native art written by contemporary Native artists or art historians are few and far between. In reviewing this book, I could find only one: Alfred Young Man's Contemporary Indian Art: A Question of Integrity, and that is actually a catalogue to a 1997 exhibit mounted by the Champs Art Gallery (small press run, now out of print, but still available from the gallery).

Bill Reid should not be an anthropological study of one artist's life, nor a dissection of classical Haida style-if it contains those things, it should not be limited to them. In order to respect the artist, Bill Reid should have been a straightforward discussion of his work or a thorough exploration of what it means to be a Haida artist working in the late 20th century. As it is, this book is neither one nor the other. It is a comfortable volume for those who desire an orderly world without change or upheaval. 

Stephanie Farrington is an Ottawa writer and poet. She works and studies at Carleton University's School for Studies in Art and Culture.


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