Unpacking Art: Bryan Myles on Haida Artist Bill Reid (JAN 19 2017)

Emma Kenny | February 24, 2017

My daily route, during the years of my Communications undergraduate degree at SFU in Burnaby, has time and again led me past a pair of plaster figurative sculptures in the North AQ. Even though I continuously walked past these works, I failed to wonder about them. The two sculptures, Dogfish Woman and Bear Mother (1991), were the subject of Bryan Myles' lunchtime Unpacking Art talk at SFU Gallery on Haida artist Bill Reid, and indeed, they have a story behind them. 

Tucked away from the insanity of the University's hallways at lunchtime on a club day, I had a true experience with Indigenous art in SFU Gallery's intimate setting. Myles works at the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Studies and is completing an interdisciplinary PhD exploring the changing relationship between memory, institutions and Indigenous people. His knowledge of Reid's history proved incredibly informative. Myles related Reid's work to traditional Haida stories and described the cultural roots behind the art and forms symbolizing traditional morals. He discussed Reid's best-known piece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (1986) a sculpture that also includes the figures of the Bear Mother and the Dogfish Woman. These figures are important to Haida culture, emblemized through their resurgence not only in Reid's work, but contemporary Haida art in general. The Bear Mother is derived from the tale of a woman who falls in love with a grizzly bear, eventually marrying and having human-bear children. This tale supports unlikely relationships, and love and family above all else. The Dogfish Woman comes from a story surrounding a couple that would go down to the river to hunt for fish. The wife in this tale continuously ridicules the dogfish for their unpleasant looks. Subsequently, the woman is later eaten by the dogfish and the husband returns to see the Dogfish Woman within the water, recognizing his wife and what had happened. This tale is a moral account, emphasizing the importance of not making judgments. 

Bill Reid, Bear Mother, Dogfish Woman, 1991 (detail). Plaster on marble pedestal. SFU Art Collection. Gift of Allan and Faigie Waisman, 2002.

Myles touched upon Reid's biography-and this was supplemented by contributions by audience members, including some who knew Reid while he was alive. It was valuable to hear about the artist's ideas and interpretations from those familiar with his life, culture and work. Myles stated that, "Bill Reid created a fusion between Western and Haida art." Born to a Scottish-German father and an Indigenous mother from Haida Gwaii, Reid's artworks were influenced by this confluence of cultures. I believe that this fusion is important as this interesting hybrid take on culture encourages viewers to reflect on themselves. Potentially, this could enable individuals to bring light to their own backgrounds and subsequently to establish an appreciation for their own subjective experience with culture.

By comparing the traditional representations of folklore figures within Haida visual culture to Reid's interpretation, Myles described how Reid's Western art background had influenced his work. Reid's rendering of the Dogfish Woman and the Bear Mother are undoubtedly traditional yet also individualistic. Reid celebrated his Haida heritage and its visual traditions while incorporating a modern aesthetic. (Reid's diverse culture prevails.) One example of this can be seen in the sculpture's round and human-like structure rather than the traditional block-like form commonly seen within Haida visual production. With this, Reid exhibited how culture can be maintained and celebrated while also making it personalized and discursive in contemporary art.

After Myles' presentation and the ensuing discussion concluded, he led us to see the Dogfish Woman and the Bear Mother. This gesture enabled the whole experience to come together. Those same sculptures that I had walked by so many times now had a story behind them, full of cultural significance and deeply rooted history. Walking down the North AQ hallway again, I will hesitate before disengaging with the artwork that has now been unpacked. 

For more information on Unpacking Art: Lunchtime Talks on Works in the SFU Art Collection, click here.