Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's Fresh Perspective on Haida Art
When I call for an interview, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas cheerfully puts me on speaker phone so he can sketch the beginnings of his next work while we talk. Yahgulanaas is a busy man. His art is attracting more attention than ever, continuing the artistic tradition of his people, the Haida Nation, in a surprising medium: the comic.
Among his recent accomplishments are the illustrations for a book by David Suzuki called Interdependence, and a book by the daughter of Haida artist Bill Reid. His new graphic novel, Red: A Haida Manga, has garnered nominations for the B.C. Book Prize, the Joe Shuster Award, and the Doug Wright Award. But Yahgulanaas’s art is just as effective, if not more so, on gallery-size scale.
His first commercial show in Vancouver opened on Saturday, March 20, at the Douglas Udell Gallery on South Granville, and all but one of the show’s 31 works are new and have never been shown before.
In Yahgulanaas’s art, individual forms often have multiple meanings, depending on how you turn your head. Yahgulanaas calls it “visual punning.” When he feels a meaning is becoming too obvious in a painting, he rotates the canvas and starts the work from a new angle. This is often why his title, autograph, and the work’s serial number often wind up in several different planes on his canvases. Visual punning means that “pieces are serving a multitude of purposes simultaneously,” Yahgulanaas says. It's a technique used often in traditional Haida art.
Yahgulanaas’s work Continuum, on show at the Udell, is an example of visual punning. It is a cedar box from the late 1850s to which Yahgulanaas has added copper foil and calligraphy, each face of the box illustrating a different take on the title. “It requires the observer to abandon the notion that they can be passive,” he says.
Though not “party political,” Yahgulanaas is passionate that people exercise their freedom to interpret the world. Yahgulanaas wants his art to inspire viewers to “abandon passivity, to become engaged, and not to waste oxygen.” This outlook, he says, is very Haida. Yahgulanaas hopes his work and its many perspectives encourage non-Indigenous Peoples to reinterpret their relationship with Indigenous Peoples (“Capital ‘I,’ capital ‘P.’”).
In the traditional Haida community there is no single authority. Many voices guide the group. In contrast, Yahgulanaas says, European colonists came to Canada with the perspective that a government exists to exert authority over its citizens. Yahgulanaas describes his work as the latest expression of a long standing vibrant Haida tradition of innovation, channeling Haida with a modern perspective. He focuses a much-needed fresh eye on an old-rooted culture that is very much still alive and kicking.