Posted by: Kevin Coyle
On the West Coast, in the rich and diverse world of First Nations art, the master carvers responsible for the totem poles and myriad other monumental works are usually men.
There are exceptions. And two exceptional women – trailblazing female First Nations artists who have carved their way into Canadian cultural history – are getting their due in two new exhibitions. Pioneering Kwakwaka’wakw carver Ellen Neel is being celebrated at a show in Victoria, 50 years after her death. And Musqueam artist Susan Point has a comprehensive, magnificent solo show opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend.
It wasn’t planned, but having these two shows mounted at the same time on the West Coast is notable and meaningful. “As we have come to recognize indigenous art more, the emphasis has been largely on men. And I think it’s really important that we call forward the names of indigenous women,” said Carolyn Butler Palmer, the curator of the exhibition Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver.
The name of the Neel show, at the University of Victoria’s Legacy Art Gallery Downtown, is intentionally provocative, its organizers say. It’s meant to draw out other stories of female indigenous carvers who would have been forced to work underground, along with their male counterparts, during the dark years of the potlatch ban.
“It’s really a colonial idea that our women didn’t carve. Our women have always carved,” said Lou-ann Neel, the carver’s granddaughter and an advising curator for the exhibition. “I’ve already heard a few people say, ‘Well, you know, our grandmother was also a carver.’ Good, I want to hear about her. Let’s talk about her, too. Because all of our communities need these role models to come from the last couple of generations and encourage our young girls and women to pursue the arts, too.”
Neel was born in Alert Bay, B.C., in 1916 and died in 1966 – the exhibition commemorates both the 100th anniversary of her birth and the 50th anniversary of her death. Her grandfather Charlie James taught her to carve, and both artists have totem poles at Stanley Park (although the one by James deteriorated, so a replica carved by Tony Hunt was installed instead).
Neel moved to Vancouver in 1943 with her husband. When he became ill, feeding their large family fell to Neel. Her art became the family’s bread and butter.
She eventually set up shop in an old military bunker in Stanley Park, the Totem Arts Shop. There, she taught her children the craft and put them to work in what became a family enterprise.
She was an early and strong believer in bringing traditional design into contemporary clothing and objects and saw the potential of the commercial application of First Nations art.
“I believe it can be used with stunning effect on tapestry, textiles, sportswear and in jewellery. Small pieces of furniture lend themselves admirably to the Indian designs,” Neel said in a speech at the B.C. Arts and Welfare Society Conference at the University of British Columbia in 1948.
In addition to monumental and mid-sized totem poles, she turned out small ones, masks and other decorative and useful items – coasters, placemats, ashtrays – that catered to the tourist trade. She was commissioned by the Royal Albert china company to create Totem Ware ceramics and made wearable art such as scarves, bags and blouses.
She also designed the famous Totemland Pole, a commission from a tourism organization, and made hundreds of them. They were awarded to employees of the year and given to visiting dignitaries, dispatched around the globe in suitcases belonging to the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope.
“My uncle Bob used to say,” said Lou-ann Neel, “and he’d say it every time I went to see him: ‘I really think people should get up and face the sun every morning and thank God for Ellen Neel. Because she’s the one who made it possible for them to go to market with their products.’”
The show, in an intimate space, features a variety of items, including her final work: a pair of clip-on earrings (now made into a brooch and pendant) that she made in the hospital.
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