Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nisga Art Repatriated: "The Spirit of our Ancestors Returns Home".

This picture is sure to grab the attention of any lover of the visual arts. Its a work by a member of the Nisga Nation, on Canada's West Coast.

The column below was taken from the Ottawa Citzen, via Google and the Montreal Gazette. (Good stories make the rounds don't they?) It was written by Bruce Ward of Postmedia News, on Sept. 11, 2010. The photograph was also sourced from Postmedia.

Nearly 300 historically significant Nisga’a artifacts collected in central B.C. in the early 20th century — some described as “masterpieces” of native art — are to be repatriated next week by officials from two major Canadian museums.

The Nisga’a Nation will make legal history this week with a ceremony marking the return of about 300 cultural artifacts held by the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal British Columbia Museum.

For the first time, repatriation of artifacts was negotiated under the terms of the Nisga’a Final Agreement, signed between the British Columbia government and the Nisga’a 10 years ago. The treaty grants communal self-government and control of natural resources to the Nisga’a in their corner of northwestern British Columbia. It also sets out a process for the return of cultural and heritage items.

“This is the first time transfer of artifacts has happened like this through the treaty,” said Martha Black, a curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

“It’s very exciting. It’s a real landmark because it’s the first modern treaty, and for what it means to the Nisga’a people and the people of Canada.”

The artifacts — 121 items from the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., and 155 from the museum in Victoria — are being trucked to the Nisga’a Museum in Greenville. B.C., about 100 kilometres from Prince Rupert, in time for the ceremony on Wednesday.

But even avid museum goers in Ottawa are unlikely to miss any of the items transferred because few were on display.

No totem poles or other exhibits in the museum’s Grand Hall are being returned, said Moira McCaffrey, who oversees the museum’s artifact and archival collections.

Most of the items going to the Nisga’a Museum are related to shamanistic and healing rituals, she said.

Among the items are rattles, whistles, small charms and carved amulets.

For the past 25 years, the Museum of Civilization has been working with community groups asking for repatriation of artifacts. Most requests have come from aboriginal communities.

In 1978, for example, the museum returned confiscated potlatch items to the Kwakwaka’wakw communities of Alert Bay and Cape Mudge. The museum has also returned wampum to the Six Nations Confederacy and medicine bundles to the Plains communities.

It has also returned human remains to several First Nations.

Many of the items being returned to the Nisga’a were collected by British-born ethnologist Charles Newcombe, who visited villages throughout B.C. during the early 1900s. Many items amassed by Newcombe were eventually added to collections in museums around the world.

McCaffrey said that many museums now recognize that historically significant artifacts were never meant to leave First Nation communities.

She said the museum’s negotiations with the Nisga’a were respectful, and a learning process for both sides.

The Nisga’a ceremony, titled “The Spirit of Our Ancestors Has Returned Home,” will feature cultural dancing and a tribal picnic.

The event will be webcast, adding a modern touch to the traditional rituals.

Ottawa Citizen

All that being said, lets take a look at the work above. I could easily call it 'Eyes Wide Open'. The face is surrounded like the roof and walls of a longhouse. I can imagine it, for instance as a great painting on the end wall.

It is human in features, but in other respects it has an all seeing, spiritually representational look.

The wide staring eyes lack any sense of individual recognition. They look beyond the singular and they see all.

In some respects it resembles a death mask, for the features are caught in the rigidness of a frozen moment of time. The blank eyes remind me of the Moon Mask, I once saw in Victoria. But there is much more to this, for the Moon Mask was as flat and as formless as the face of the moon.

This is the kind of mask I would expect to find if I was on an archaelogical dig at the grave of a great leader from a long gone, great society.

Explications of the meaning of Native Art fall short of the mark, since the majority of non natives, and possibly even the majority of natives living today, lack the insight into the cultural nuances of artistic symbolism enjoyed by the artist.

One thing for certain, is that the Nisga people will most certainly rejoice at being able to once again experience the profound sense of awe and mystery which I see in it, only this time it will have returned home.

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