British Columbia

New documentary profiles renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson

Haida artist Robert Davidson is the subject of the new documentary, Haida Modern, directed by Charles Wilkinson.

Haida Modern to premiere at Vancouver International Film Festival

Haida Modern profiles Robert Davidson, Haida artist and activist, and the impact he's had on Canada's West Coast. (Photo by Tina Schliessler)

Anyone who has visited or lives on Canada's West Coast has likely come across Haida art; it's often found in gift and souvenir shops, on the ferry between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, and at festivals up and down the coast. 

Seeing Indigenous art was not always so easy, and documentary filmmaker Charles Wilkinson endeavoured to find out why in his latest film Haida Modern

The film chronicles Haida artist Robert Davidson's life, and looks at the impact Davidson and his work have had on the country. 

"His work is so beautiful and it's so evocative," Wilkinson told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay. 

"It's like we're inviting the world to come to a gallery and see this phenomenal exhibition of Robert's work."

1969 totem pole raising

Davidson, who also spoke to MacKay, said one of the more notable moments in his life was in 1969, when he carved a new totem pole for Haida Gwaii. It was the first time in decades that a pole had been raised there.

Davidson said it sparked a reawakening of Haida culture, after years of oppression, including the potlatch ban and residential schools. 

Davidson was 22 when the totem pole went up. 

"The inspiration came from my elders," Davidson said.

The pole was — and continues to be — celebrated by many, but at the time of its creation not everyone was on board with the idea.

"His work is so beautiful and it's so evocative," Wilkinson, pictured left, said of Davidson. (Photo by Tina Schliessler )

"There was so much pain, culturally, and also with our language," Davidson said. 

His parents' generation had been to residential school, and weren't allowed to speak their own language. When they returned home, they were strangers to their communities. 

Because of this, he says, one elder was adamant that he not carve the pole. His grandparents, however, encouraged him to create it. 

Wilkinson is proud of the moment in the film when Davidson speaks about the meaning of ceremonies, and why non-Indigenous people are so attracted to these types of celebrations. 

"He said it's because the spiritualism is so genuine, it's so legitimate," Wilkinson said, noting the film includes footage of Davidson dancing and wearing a traditional mask.

"I just get chills," he said. "It's a really genuine experience."

Haida Modern will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 1 and 11.


  • A previous version of this story stated that Robert Davidson's mother did not want him to carve the totem pole. In fact, it was an elder who did not want him to carve it.
    Oct 02, 2019 1:23 PM PT

With files from North by Northwest