James Leslie – Bella Coola Raven Ceremonial Mask: An historical view of West Coast First Nations Art before and after contact

Today I’m featuring one of the most striking pieces of Haida ceremonial art I have ever owned. First though, I invite you to read my historical outline of Haida artforms and some of the links to more info on Haida history, culture and art, which is further down this post. It will help you to put this lovely ceremonial object into perspective.

Bella Coola Raven mask - James Leslie

Raven is one of the recurring themes in ceremony and story and is featured in many dances. This particular piece is outstanding in its marriage of braided cedar, carved cedar wood, brilliant pigments and bone beads. In addition it mixes sound into the artistry, as there is a hidden string that can be manipulated beneath the costume  and an attention getting noise ensues, drawing all attention to the Raven figure.
This beautiful piece of art is available for purchase from Redkettle Gallery now.
James Leslie - kwag-ulth-shark-lg

James Leslie kwag-ulth-shark-lg

Above is another James Leslie mask – this time of a mythic shark figure – another one of the common animals featured in myth and ceremonial story-telling dance.  This figure is SOLD.




The second part of today’s post starts my  planned outline of the development of Canadian First Peoples’ art, both pre and post contact with European cultures.  I will continue with this outline as time allows.
It is a huge undertaking – much bigger than I had originally thought. Rather than deal with the subject in a wide sweeping North American context, it makes more sense to break it down into regional cultural groups.
Therefore I’m going to start with the West Coast Haida and related groups – Tlingit and Tsimshian. 
Haida ceremonial story telling dances originated in potlach ceremonies

Haida costumes and dances

It is not clear where the Haida fit in terms of their origins – some suggest New Zealand or China – no one knows for certain.  It is known that there has been human settlement on the north west coast of North America for more than 8000 years, and that in the somewhat more recent past these peoples have traded with Russian and North Eastern Asian contacts, sometimes directly and sometimes using other nations traders, and conducted a fur trade with them – mainly in sea otter skins which were highly prized in Asia. It appears that a group migrated north to Alaska  in this millenium in order to be better able to conduct this trade, and to exploit as well the large seal populations.
So it is clear that outside influences early on  shaped the Haida  economy and their settlement patterns and also added to their range of technology – possibly in terms of working fine metals. There was no permanent settlement of these traders, so the Haida people’s self government and traditional spiritual and social practices remained safe.
The same was not true though, once the American/European traders and settlers reached the Western  shore of North America, and by 1860, that group of people were in direct conflict with the traditional Haida way of life and had in the space of thirty years brought a devestating smallpox outbreak to the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwii), wiping out better than half of the population: they had then, as they got a foot hold banned the potlatch and other ceremonial practices: and introduced an English only, Christian only education designed to incorporate the Haida peoples into the mainstream. This was done with the innate feeling of cultural superiority that  colonizing Europeans displayed to all other nations they colonized.
Before this point in time, there had been no identification of decorative arts as being art forms by the Haida – there was no divorce of form and function in their minds.  Certain skilled and talented artisans had naturally come to prominence and were commissioned by wealthy members of the community to make utilitarian objects as well as ceremonial objects out of fine metal, carved wood and stone, woven and sewn textiles – these commissions gave artisans  the wealth to no longer need to work at subsistence hunting, gathering etc. As a matter of course, houses, totems and boats as well as smaller food vessels, masks and clothing/costumes were always decorated with the highly detailed traditional art forms so well known today, and most people also made and decorated their own utilitarian items.
After the potlatch was forbidden and other traditional ceremonial activities were frowned upon and discouraged; the impetus to produce the beautiful and rich artisanal items faltered and along with the stories of a whole people these things had died out in the space of less than two generations to the point that no one remembered the skills except for a few elders.

Bill Reids carving of a bear - Reid was one of the artists of the West Coast tribes who re-introduced many of the techniques lost along with the cultural destruction that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century

In the case of the Haida peoples, a huge debt is owed to Bill Reid – a renaissance man if there ever was – he almost singlehandedly absorbed as much knowledge as he could from elders and the few remaining artifacts in museums and set out , starting with precious metal, working to relearn a whole nation’s art. As he gained skill and experience he made more and more monumental pieces as well as his lovely smaller silkscreen prints of mythical figures.

He set up a small workshop and had a group of employee/apprentice/artisans who worked in his employ helping to produce Haida art for a new age and a new type of market. His strength and endurance waned due to Parkinson’s disease as time went on and without his apprentices he couln’t have completed the body of work that he oversaw and designed.  Without his influence, this expression of a Nation’s culture and thus its spirit would have died. Artists in general tend to live large and attract criticism and Bill Reid is no exception, but it cannot be denied that he was a seminal figure in saving the culture of a whole ethnic group.

emily carr - totem poles - early 20th century

Emily Carr, who as a woman artist in the early years of the twentieth century, surely felt her own culural and social isolation; identified with the lovely lost artifacts of the British Columbia coast. Her paintings, as they became accepted across Canada, opened peoples’ minds to the magnificent heritage that was being lost, and helped the impetus to preserve and channel the creative spirit of the Haida and of other Canadian First Nations. We as Canadians owe her, too, a great debt.

After you have read more intensively in the links listed below, you will find you better understand the place of the wonderful ceremonial masks I have shown at the beginning of this post – go back and look again with new eyes on these beauties.

My James Leslie “Bella Coola Raven” clacker mask is indeed one of the best of the best from contemporary Haida ceremonial art, and I invite you to consider purchasing this beautiful and unique piece – it is destined to become an object of living heritage, and would be a lovely and unique piece in any art collection.

Contact me for further details:  mich@redkettle.com









One response to “James Leslie – Bella Coola Raven Ceremonial Mask: An historical view of West Coast First Nations Art before and after contact

  1. Pingback: NEWS about an Isaac Bignell painting and a James Leslie Haida ceremonial mask | Redkettle's Blog

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