Words worth 1,000 pictures

Two new Museum of Anthropology exhibits straddle the watershed between oral and written culture

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So imposing is this display that my wife and I sink, awed, into an invitingly capacious pink armchair conveniently disposed nearby. Immediately the chair starts talking to us, through embedded speakers, in the recorded voice of “knowledge keeper” Clyde Tallio, detailing how his Nuxalk First Nation forbears first descended from the sky to stake out their coastal homeland.

It’s a thoroughly non-linear account, at once lulling yet fascinating, studded with place names and elaborate genealogies. It’s a full 22 minutes before the chair releases us, dazed, from its hypnotic embrace.

Knowledge Keeper Clyde Tallio with Ancestors; 'executive summary.' Photos: Nuxalk Smayusta

“And that’s just the ‘executive summary,’” McLennan points out. By rights the story should go on for four days, he notes – “so long, in fact, that the Nuxalk hosts had to pay their guests to hear them out,” which was the core function of potlatch gift-giving.

Because by listening, he explains, the guests effectively assent to the origin myth, with its implicit rights, privileges and precedence. Of course, the auditors could interject their own variants of the story, which then become subject to negotiation until consensus is reached on the foundation myths and their latter-day implications.

In other words, these accounts – orally transmitted in excruciating detail via successive generations of “knowledge keepers” – are far more than just an entertaining floorshow for a potlatch feast. “They’re products of high-powered diplomacy, with full force of law.”

No wonder the Dominion of Canada banned the potlatch for 66 years, right through 1951. How to comport such legal concepts with the statutory writ of a colonial bureaucratic state? With two such irreconcilable systems of law, what would it even mean for coastal First Nations to “cede” territories that are as much ideational as platted land tracts? How to bridge the gulfs between oral and written culture, let alone achieve "reconciliation" with what now looks, increasingly, like a post-literate ‘civilization?’

For inklings of some answers, look no further than across the hall in the section of the MOA’s “Multiversity” Gallery that’s usually given over to Asian artefacts. Pride of place goes to a gorgeously carved ivory seal, the size and heft of a cinderblock, whereby Emperor Qianlong, through the mere imprimatur of his name, claimed dominion over All Under Heaven.

He’s hardly the first suzerain to lay such claims in writing. An adjacent display case features a stamped brick dating nearly 4,000 years before Qianlong, in which one Amar-Suena introduces himself – in spiky Sumerian cuneiform – as “chosen by the god Enil…to be mighty king of the four quarters.”

Splayed around these centrepieces, iconic writings and writing implements attest to the power of calligraphy to assert cultural dominance. They may bespeak private opulence (lavishly ornamented ink sticks and rubbing slabs) or social prestige (a shamanistic spell in Yunan's Naxi tribal pictograms that prominently portrays its temple donor) or ideological sway (a slogan-writing brush as big as battle axe) or mercantile reach (China-made cloisonné censors and Ming-era ceramic platters inscribed in Arabic script for export to the Muslim world).

Some calligraphy derives its authority from historical context; a banal homiletic couplet takes on added meaning when we learn that it was brushed by Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Chinese Republic. And then there are the most prized examples of all – writings that, through the vigour and formal perfection of their script, assert with startling immediacy the integrity and composure of the mind behind the brushstrokes.

Some pieces in the MOA exhibit, like a two-meter scroll by the 18th century master Jin Nong, are so definitive that they’ve given rise to offshoot calligraphy genres in their own right.  Some, like a spectral white-on-black offprint rubbing of a Song Dynasty sutra-inscribed stone stele, are so ancient that we no longer know who wrote them even though we can mentally trace his thought patterns in every flick of the calligrapher's brush.

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