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Contemporary West Coast First Nations art takes the spotlight in new exhibit

Artwork that mixes pop culture, spirituality and First Nations culture will be showcased this summer at a vibrant new exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Creator, by Don Yeomans, is among the works included in the exhibition, which spans art veterans like Yeomans and Robert Davidson to newcomers on the scene. ((Trevor Mills/McMichael Canadian Art Collection))
Artwork that mixes pop culture, spirituality and First Nations culture will be showcased this summer at a vibrant new exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast features 75 works by 40 active First Nations artists in British Columbia.

Noted Vancouver author and seasoned art curator Ian Thom assembled the artwork on display and penned the accompanying book — a project suggested to him by B.C. businessman, philanthropist and visual arts aficionado Michael Audain.

For Thom, a senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery who began work the project in late 2005, one of the key reference points was to compare past and present.

"An interesting point of reference was to see how [the artists] related to traditional forms of art created by their own community, whether it be the Kwakwaka'wakw, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Coast Salish or, of course, the Haida," Thom told CBC News.

After interviewing all the featured artists, and spending time in some of their studios, what he found was that the artists and their practices had different ways of relating to traditional forms.

Shawn Hunt, whose painting This Stick Aint Saying Anything! is shown here, is among the younger Northwest Coast artists showcased in the exhibit. ((Kenji Nagai/Spirit Wrestler Gallery/McMichael Canadian Art Collection))
"You live up to that tradition, you change that tradition, you move beyond that tradition or maybe, in some cases, you even ignore that tradition," he said.

Artists in the exhibit range from established figures such as Robert Davidson to notable up-and-coming artists such as Sonny Assu to artists not as well known outside First Nations communities, such as Beau Dick, Dempsey Bob and Wayne Alfred.

The highlighted pieces include masks, jewelry, carvings, embroidery, sculptures, paintings and drawings realized through a variety of media, such as wood, paint, metal, cloth and animal skin. Most are recent works, some even specifically created for the exhibit.

Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast opens Saturday at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., north of Toronto. It runs through Sept. 20.

Organizers are also in talks to tour the exhibit in Canada and internationally.

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