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New film highlights the stunning artwork and activism of Indigenous trailblazer Robert Davidson

Haida Modern tells the remarkable story of how Davidson helped to popularize and legitimize Indigenous art.

Haida Modern tells the remarkable story of how Davidson helped to popularize and legitimize Indigenous art

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

Haida artist Robert Davidson was just 22 years old when he decided he wanted to do something that hadn't been done in his home community in nearly a century: raise a totem pole.

It was 1969 and Davidson was living in Vancouver where he had moved with his family as a teen, and was honing his carving skills under the tutelage of masters including legendary Indigenous artist Bill Reid, and through the artistic community at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

But when he returned to his Haida Gwaii community of Masset, B.C., Davidson noticed there was almost no Indigenous art on display — one of the painful legacies of the residential school system as well as strict government and religious policies that saw the removal of totem poles, masks, carvings, and other expressions of Indigenous culture.

Robert Davidson, 22, (right) and his grandfather Tsinii on August 22, 1969, the day of the first totem pole raising on Haida Gwaii in nearly a century. (National Film Board)

So, Davidson offered to carve a totem pole — the first of its kind to be raised in 90 years — to give the elders the opportunity to celebrate their culture in a way they had been denied for decades. Some expressed concern about bringing up the past; others were worried they could be thrown in jail.

But according to Davidson, on Aug. 22, 1969, roughly 1,000 people from Masset, Skidegate, Hydaburg and other communities came to witness the pole being raised, and in the process, marked a groundbreaking cultural shift.

"I didn't realize the celebration was really uncorking the bottle. How the old people carried themselves, how they talked, how they danced, how they sang songs. It spoke volumes of the knowledge that was still with them. Knowledge that survived," recounts Davidson.

"It was like the culture was never ever gone. It was awoken," he says. "I had no idea how important it was. How this would be affecting many people outside of the Haida nation. It took me a long time to realize the totem pole was actually a catalyst to make the statement that, 'Hey we're alive, and we want to be part of this world.'"

The moment also marks a key scene in Charles Wilkinson's breathtaking new documentary, Haida Modern, which recently premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The film traces Davidson's upbringing and his rocky family life — his father was also a residential school survivor — as well as the development of his remarkable work, which can be found in prestigious art collections around the globe.

It also delves into Davidson's environmental and social activism, which is inextricably linked to the natural world, to Indigenous culture and tradition, and to his art.

Haida artist Robert Davidson uses his work to make powerful social and political statements. His totem pole We Were Once Silenced references how Indigenous people were forced into residential schools and ordered to stop practicing their language and culture. (Robert Davidson)

Wilkinson says he had been a lifelong admirer of Davidson's work, but first met the artist while working on the acclaimed 2015 documentary Haida Gwaii: On The Edge of the World, and intentionally chose to weave together threads of Davidson's life story with his political views.

"It became clear that that the world views that Robert talks about and works into his art were world views that seem so critical to the health and safety of species in the world now, and it seemed like something that really needed to be done," says Wilkinson in an interview with CBC's q.

Robert Davidson's 2005 acrylic on canvas, 'Grizzly Bear,' is from the collection of Diana Krall and Elvis Costello. ((Kenji Nagai/ Vancouver Art Gallery))

"As well, the work is so beautiful that for a filmmaker it would be hard to resist working with images that lovely."

The film also recounts how Davidson and Reid decided to create saleable Indigenous art by silk-screening images and selling them — an approach that is ubiquitous now, but was unheard of at the time. (In the film, Davidson jokes that they gave away far more of the prints than they sold.) In fact, Indigenous art was barely on the art world's radar.

"When I moved away from Masset to Vancouver, we were all carving in a vacuum because there was no evidence of the incredible art that the old masters created, and once I saw the standard I was really thirsty to relearn it," remembers Davidson.

I didn't set out to be a carver, or an artist. In fact a lot of times I lamented about wanting to be a truck driver because you can just turn off — but in art, you can't really turn off," he says.

Killer Whale Transforming into a Thunderbird, a 2009 wood carving by Robert Davidson, was commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Trevor Mills/Vancouver Art Gallery)

"And there was no market in the same way there is today. In fact, one time Bill Reid and I were working in his studio and brainstorming on how we could earn our next dollar. That's where it was. Today it's a whole different story."

For the next generation of Indigenous artists, it is a whole different story, and in Haida Modern, many credit Davidson for helping to carve a place for them in the mainstream art world, among them Heiltsuk artist Shawn Hunt, who explains that while he never studied with Davidson directly, the carver's work was a key inspiration.

"I saw how great the work was. And I saw how interesting it was that he was always progressing, always pushing the form forward," says Hunt, who is now based in Vancouver. But Hunt wasn't only inspired by Davidson's work: he was inspired by his success.

“It became clear that that the world views that Robert talks about and works into his art were world views that seem so critical to the health and safety of species in the world now, and it seemed like something that really needed to be done,” says Haida Modern director Charles Wilkinson. (Tina Schliessler)

"I was also very interested in how successful he was, that he was making a living at being an artist — but not only making a living at being an artist. He is famous. And that was a real eye-opening thing for me. It was like, 'Wait a minute. I can practice my culture, I can make work that resonates deep within my soul, and I can make a great living at it.

"He was somebody to really look up to because he is a rock star of native art, moving into the realm of just being an artist, period," says Hunt. "And it's now totally acceptable and totally cool to be a Native artist."

Wilkinson adds that while Davidson's indigeneity defines so much of what he does, the film doesn't narrowly look at him as an "Indigenous artist."

"We're looking at him as a great artist, as a world artist, which is the way that the world is looking at Robert, and an increasing number of coastal artists here," says Wilkinson.

We're looking at him as a great artist, as a world artist, which is the way that the world is looking at Robert, and an increasing number of coastal artists here.- Haida Modern director Charles Wilkinson

"And that's really a remarkable thing because in my lifetime the only place you'd see Indigenous art was in souvenir shops, and often it was made in Asia. It's not like that anymore. It's transformed into what it always was, which was a great world art."

Now nearly 73 years old, Davidson continues to push boundaries, never satisfied to rest on the same artistic ground.

"As I gain more and more numbers to my age I feel there's only this much more left in my life, and there is this much more that I can do, so I feel I have to put a new value on that," he says in the film.

"Whatever we can imagine, we can create," says Haida artist Robert Davidson in the new film Haida Modern. (Tina Schliessler)

"It's taking me longer for each piece, because I'm still pushing and expanding my vocabulary within the art form."

He's also speaking out about the effects of climate change, and about his opposition to practices like oil sands development and clear-cut logging, which he believes ignore the sacredness of nature — and have no regard for the future.

Recently Wilkinson and Davidson walked in the Vancouver climate march, and Wilkinson noted how much Indigenous art there was — on T-shirts, in tattoos, on drums — and how many speeches were made by Indigenous leaders or referenced their efforts to protect the environment.

"That came from the art. It did. Without the art to motivate people and to inspire people, would things be the way they are today? I don't think so," says Wilkinson.

"Robert is one of the most modest people, and he doesn't like to take credit for things, but I think a great deal of credit is due for having had the courage and the vision to realize that the culture was still alive — and to take those key steps in helping the elders to facilitate the waking up of it," says Wilkinson, referencing that pole-raising half a century ago.

"Because now we see what a positive impact that Indigenous cultures are having on Western culture. And really it's high time."

Haida Modern is screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival October 11 at 3 p.m.

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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