In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

240 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 As the authors periodically remind the reader, the problem of unemployment remains with us today and continues to have real economic and social costs. Indeed, 'the pedlar, the washerwoman and the scrounger' who were commonplace figures on the streets ofCanadian towns and cities a htmdred years ago are with us still. And in this current age of uncertainty, they remain part of 'the great parade of job seekers.' (E. JANE ERRINGTON) Peter Macnair, RobertJoseph, and Bruce Grenville. Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks ofthe Northwest Coast Douglas and Mcintyre/University of Washington Press/ Vancouver Art Gallery. 192 . $39.95 Down from the Shimmering Sky is a celebratory text, an exhibition catalogue that commemorates an incredibly popular exhibit of the same name held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1998. One hundred and seventy-eight masks from the First Nations of the Northwest Coast were on display, a rarity in exhibitions of this type of material, not known for comprehensive overviews. There is no question that the catalogue is exquisitely designed, replete with boutique litmasks and scattered historical photographs: sixtyone in colour and ninety-eight in black and white. The text plays second fiddle to the compelling photographic essay. However, if readers can draw their eyes away from the photographs, the text becomes an interesting counterpoint, tulsettling in its disjunctive voices. The curators, Peter Macnair, Robert Josep~ and Bruce Grenville, claim to be doing a 'hybrid project' where ethnography and connoisseurship are conjoined. At first glance, the text is divided into two main essays which seem to belie a happy hybridity, but which Grenville, senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery, describes in his introduction as 'a timely prescription against the bipolar models of ethnography and connoisseurship that threatens to engulf the study of Northwest Coast arts.' The two essays appear to work against each other, offering us two very different epistemologies, and yet their difference is perhaps·what is novel and useful in this catalogue, since they are allowed to remain side by side uncomfortably. The essay by Kwakw~k~'wakw Chief Robert Joseph titled 'Behind the Mask' offers a point of entry for those unfamiliar with the traditional role of Northwest Coast masks in ceremonies and potlatches. We witness his personal relationship to the dance masks that originate from genealogical ties not aesthetic appreciation. Through Joseph's memories of being a dancer, we feel the absorbing attention, awe, and power of these masks in action. He describes how masks are carefully hidden away when they are not being danced. A Raven mask covered in a blanket made this point viscerally in the exhibition, but is neither included in photograph nor mentioned in the catalogue. It is sorely missed, considering the significant HUMANITIES 241 contemporary objections of many First Nations people who do not want their cultural objects on display in nontraditional venues. Visiting curator Peter Macnair's essay, 'Power of the Shining Heavens/ is a startling change back to a more art-historical epistemology. The essay is organized by dividing the masks artificially into categories of 'the Human Face Divine,' 'the Sky World,' 'the Mortal World,' 'the Undersea World,' and 'the Spirit World.' This is ostensibly a more etlmographic division than cOIUloisseurship's tendency to divide by national art style or formalist categories,but Macnair recognizes the problems in fitting specific First Nations Northwest Coast spiritual traditions into comprehensive holistic categories. Within the limits of the categories, he reverts to his arthistorical strength, which is nationaland individual style attribution. However , when he immediately includes 'JennaCass' masks made by Haida artists for Euro-American traders in the 1820s, he subverts traditional art history, which refuses to grant equal status to art objects made for sale. He makes the important point that 'market challenges' have always motivated Northwest Coast artists. I was disappointed that more was not written about the process of consultation withFirst Nations whenmask selectionwas negotiated for this exhibition. Many First Nations people have argued that the decision to display a mask to the public is one which can only be made by its rightful First Nations owner(s). Conflicting definitions of ownership should be discussed within the confines of a text that is...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 240-241
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.