Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian: a review.

Reading Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau made me want to get another, more conventional perspective on what we Americans call Northwest Indian art, and happily I found myself at a bookstore with a copy of Maria Tippett's Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian, a recent biography of Bill Reid, whose sculptures can be found in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, the Vancouver Public Aquarium, and the Vancouver International Airport, and at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., among other places.

It's hard to read a book about the life of an artist whose work is largely unfamiliar to you, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed Tippett's biography of Reid. Perhaps this is because, as the subtitle suggests, Tippett's interest is more in how Reid constructed his own identity and his public image, and less in the aesthetic character and significance of Reid's work. (Paradoxically, Tippett describes that Reid was an artist with very strong aesthetic beliefs, but one who took much less interest in the cultural significance of Haida art.) Born of an emigre American father and a Haida mother who assimilated into white Vancouver moreso than many, Reid told others that he did not even learn of his native ancestry until he was in his teens, and he never spent much time in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Reid had the benefit of a formal education in art, and viewed Haida traditions in the context of European and other traditions -- as noted, from an aesthetic perspective. He often aspired to be seen as a jeweler, not as a native artist, and yet he kept finding economic success in the latter, rather than the former.

Throughout his life, Reid stood astride two worlds, appearing to whites as a Haida artisan, and appearing to the Haida as someone who had successfully assimilated. As he grew older, Reid cultivated white patrons who could support the sort of works linked above -- a very different idiom from the bracelets and other jewelry with which he started his career. It was this success in assimilating himself into affluent white circles which, in the end, enabled him to become one of Canada's best-known native artists.

I wish Tippett's book had even more pictures of Reid's art, but I understand that Canadian law made this difficult. For someone with an interest in these subjects, the biography is worth reading.

His pieces are really marvelous. Photos don't do them justice, but Google Image turns up a few.
Is it Canadian IP/copyright law or law relating to Native rights that is the difficulty?
Here's a few at a Canadian photo forum
Is it Canadian IP/copyright law or law relating to Native rights that is the difficulty?

I'm sitting here with the book and I can't find that passage that prompted me to say that. My recollection is that it was not specific to Native rights, but had to do with the rights of either Reid's heirs or the owners of the art, but I can't find it, alas.
No one should pass up the chance to visit the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. I spent an entire day there, and happily would have stayed later.
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