First Nations art shines at Vancouver Art Gallery

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Christos Dikeakos, The Room, Three Vets

        First Nations Artwork is a defining feature of British Columbia, and also a portion of the larger, often troubled relationship with Indigenous peoples in the province. The Gund Collection: Contemporary and Historical Art from the Northwest Coast and NEXT: Christos Dikeakos, which are on exhibit until January 31st at the Vancouver Art Gallery, provide a brief but interesting look at our relationship to First Nations Artwork.

        The two exhibits occupy the three exhibition rooms on the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and though they are presented as separate exhibits they both occupy the middle room, effectively drawing the two exhibits together.

        The first room contains modern day carvings, bronzes and masks from the Northwest coast, with a large number of Robert Davidson works. The second room contains the historical pieces in the Gund collection which are primarily drawn from the turn of the 19th century.The last room, meanwhile, contains six additional photographs and Dikeakos’ collection of Northwest coast baskets.

        Dikeakos’ photographs engage with First Nations artwork from an outside perspective, while the Gund collection features indigenous artists of the past and present. The two exhibits provide a small but multifaceted look at First Nations art.

        They explore tensions surrounding the capture, collection, and cultural exchange of objects and artworks.For Indigenous peoples, including those of the Northwest coast, these tensions are centred on the issues of cultural preservation, appropriation, and development. Many Indigenous communities are beginning the process of preserving and reviving traditional art forms as a direct response to these colonial actions.  

        NEXT and The Gund Collection reference this tension as historical artworks and artifacts traditionally associated with the anthropological museum, are displayed in an art gallery. Doing so raises questions about their value, their context, and their future. The modern works in the Gund Collection continue the same traditions, types, and motifs of the historical works. They are part of the preservation and restoration of cultural practices in First Nations communities, while also being collected and exhibited in the same fashions as historical works.

       Dikeakos explores this tension though his own collection of First Nations baskets — objects literally created for the purpose of collecting, organizing, and preserving other objects. His photography references the collection of artwork and artifacts by showing the relationships between cultural exchange and preservation. His photographs cover stores, an auction, the wilderness, and his workshop. All of which are spaces for First Nations cultural creation, collection and exchange.

NEXT and The Gund Collection work together to raise questions around how we exchange, capture, and preserve First Nations art works. The absence of a visible new future for First Nations artworks in both exhibits raises an important question surrounding First Nations art — once it has been preserved and revitalized as cultural practice, where will it go?