Eyes of Society: Art, Traditional Knowledge, and the Watchmen of Haida Gwaii, is a collection of over thirty works of art by ten Haida and non-indigenous artists. Coming from different regional and cultural backgrounds in Canada, all the artists explore the meaning of ‘sense of place’ on the islands of Haida Gwaii through their own artistic traditions. Through their art, language and beliefs, they investigate the notion that artists, traditionally, have been the “eyes of society.”
Eyes of Society features the artwork of April White, Anja Karisik, Sophie Lavoie, Jim Hart, Gwaai Edenshaw, Jaalen Edenshaw, Gary Landon, Andrew Sookrah, W. David Ward, and Robert Bateman. The exhibit will also feature the documentary Eyes of Society by Joe Crawford and Allison Smith of Braid Films.
The intertidal zone of Burnaby Narrows, Haida Gwaii buzzes with a collective, living energy. It is a space of beauty, adaptation, and resilience. Yet, it is a fragile ecosystem. At low tide, the curtain is pulled back and we become privy to life under the surface to which we are connected. Haida Watchmen explained that some of this life might be indicating things that are of relevance, but which we don’t see. They offered sage advice and put counsel into practice: it will be always be there if you look after it.
The intertidal zone is a narrow strip of coastal ground that is alternately immersed in seawater and exposed to air, according to the rise and fall of the tide. It is a difficult environment for living things, being neither marine nor terrestrial, but something in between.
Walking through the mossy forests or scrutinizing the beaches for interesting still life to paint, I came across abalone shells. Once a common food source around the waters of Haida Gwaii, there was always plenty of abalone for everyone to enjoy. You would take only what you needed. Today, the abalone is on the brink of extinction because wise counsel wasn’t heeded. Its shell is a reminder of our threatened watery world, on the cusp of what we might think of as a kind of ecological genocide.
Sometimes we tend to look the things that are right before our eyes. Once a common food source around the waters of Haida Gwaii, the abalone is now on the brink of extinction due to over-harvesting in past decades, and more recently, because of poaching. Before the introduction of a dive fishery, the Haida traditionally harvest abalone by hand at depths of up to one metre. There was always plenty of it, but as the elders advised, you would take only what you needed. Today, the loss of abalone is both nutritional and socio-cultural.
Without an abundance of the species, there are no opportunities to teach youth traditional methods of finding, harvesting, and preparing abalone. The abalone, in my eyes, is a vessel for communicating knowledge and sharing collective memories.
For indigenous communities like Haida Gwaii, art has long been a vehicle for the transmission of traditional knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Traditional forms and representational imagery convey the stories of the people, enabling the continuity of a shared identity, which defines the group and provides social cohesion.
What can the “Watchmen of Haida Gwaii” teach the rest of us about our relationship with our own land, the place we identify as home? What suitable context can we adopt to define the relationship between First Nations and the non-indigenous peoples, who jointly inhabit this land and rely on artists from all backgrounds to be the “eyes of society?”
The exhibit conversation starts with the 2016 short documentary Eyes of Society, which documents the kayak trip of 6 artists travelling from the Haida village sites of T’aanuu to SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay. It is an opportunity to present together First Nations and non-indigenous artists from different backgrounds an exploration of the meaning of ‘place’ through difference artistic ways of seeing. What results is a diverse collection of work representing a cross-section of Canada’s diverse population. Each of the artists reflects his or her own experience of Haida Gwaii and, through an examination of core Haida traditional knowledge and values, establishes a common ground towards a shared future.