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Victoria art exhibition highlights new work by First Nations artists

What: Urban Thunderbirds / Ravens in a Material World When: Opening Saturday 2 to 5 p.m. Exhibition continues through Jan. 12. Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Admission: Free opening. Gallery admission is $13 adults, $11 seniors/students, $2.
Co-curator of the exhibition Rande Cook with his Thunderbird at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

What: Urban Thunderbirds / Ravens in a Material World

When: Opening Saturday 2 to 5 p.m. Exhibition continues through Jan. 12.

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Admission: Free opening. Gallery admission is $13 adults, $11 seniors/students, $2.50 youth, $28 family, free for kids and members. Admission is free to members of the First Nations community during the run of this exhibition


Before the thunderbird was a car, the nickname of sports teams and creature of comic books, it was a piece of legend belonging to several nations on the Northwest coast.

So when Coast Salish artist LessLIE was brainstorming titles for a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, highlighting new works by four contemporary local First Nations artists, Urban Thunderbirds seemed perfect.

It reflected the urban reality of many contemporary artists, unified coastal nations, as well as acting as a reminder of that cultural appropriation.

“It alluded to that pop-culture aspect of thunderbirds, which sort of inverts or makes the significance of thunderbirds antithetical to its original meaning,” said LessLIE, born Leslie Robert Sam.

LessLIE and Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook were invited to co-curate the show by AGGV associate curator Nicole Stanbridge. They each chose another artist they felt shared their experimentalism to join the show.

For LessLIE, it was emerging Coast Salish artist Dylan Thomas.

“When I was an emerging artist, I was always wondering, where’s that younger artist that’s going to come after me? Then Dylan came along and really intimidated me,” LessLIE said.

For Cook, it was veteran Kwakwaka’wakw artist Francis Dick.

“I looked up to Fran when I was younger in Alert Bay. She was always an artist pushing boundaries, right from the beginning, constantly stepping out of what was considered traditional,” Cook said.

LessLIE said that what unites each of the four artists is the way they challenge notions of contemporary Northwest coast art, the dichotomy between traditional and contemporary art, as well as what’s considered “marketable.”

“I think there’s this thing in the contemporary Northwest coast First Nations art scene, where there are these coffee-table books describing the legends, with these really technically proficient pieces polished in the books,” said LessLIE. “I think that’s great and has profound cultural value, but at the same time, there hasn’t been much in the way of critical discourse . . . that challenges people’s static notions of contemporary Northwest coast art.”

The pieces in the show attempt to do so.

In ConunDRUM, LessLIE has painted a Coast Salish adaptation of the Starbucks logo on a circular drum.

In place of the mermaid’s tail and crown are salmon — symbols of the traditional natural resources of this territory.

“Starbucks began in Coast Salish territory and Starbucks and any other corporation wouldn’t have existed without that territory,” he said.

Dylan Thomas said he was afraid to show his new series, The New Bloom Collection, publicly, because of the way it broke from his previous work.

The trio of red and white geometric designs incorporates influences from perspective distortion master M.C. Escher as well as Thomas’s own practice of Zen Buddhism.

“I think these are going to represent a new era in my career where I’m going to take more risks,” Thomas said.

Cook’s Ravenous responds to the second part of the show’s title: Ravens in a Material World. A woman struts out of a commercial store, covered in traditional symbols and with the sacred raven as a pet, tied with a leash to her wrist. Cook references LessLIE’s ConunDRUM with the same Coast Salish Starbucks symbol on a wall, above a fashionable wolf preying on a washed-up, post-happyland Mickey Mouse.

“There’s always this idea that western society is chasing spirituality through consumerism,” Cook said.

“And even in our culture, after the Hudson Bay Co., fashion was always huge. The more noble you were, the more furs you had and the more abalone, and your regalia was very elaborate. In western society it’s the same, so there’s this international connection that way.”

It seems clear that all four artists have moved beyond that coffee-table book. And according to LessLIE, it’s part of the plan.

“We go beyond what we consider marketable and safe and that really engages with what could be considered post-modern discourse, and has more of a contemporary feel to it.”

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