In Kwakwaka’wakw epistemology, the universe is a giant mouth, indiscriminately gobbling up stars, dust, planets, trees, rocks, rivers, human and non-human beings – indeed, all matter that exists. ‘Everything gets devoured, devoured, devoured’ says renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Wayne Alfred. This devouring is not compelled by gluttony or greed, like the unchecked consumption causing ecological catastrophe, but rather is essential for maintaining balance in the world. This is a central tenet of the practice of late Kwakwaka’wakw artist and Hereditary Chief, Beau Dick, or Walas Gwa’yam, which translates to ‘big, great whale’.
‘Devoured by Consumerism’, the last exhibition Dick conceived before his death in 2017, is an indictment of capitalism’s logic of relentless consumption, and how such consumption fuels colonialism. The 17 masks included are carved of red cedar and painted with acrylic, and variously incorporate horse hair, graphite, marbles, thread, feathers, currency and other materials. Despite the museum’s sterile environs, they feel alive. The red lips of Dzunukwis (1990) are pursed in a round O as if ready to speak, ‘Hu!’; Ghost of Christmas Presents (2016) gives a knowing, toothy grin. Expressive features abound: unbridled locks of curly black hair (Bookwus, c.1980), nostrils flared (Bookwus (with rattles), c.1990), eyebrows raised in surprise (Atłaḱim II, c.1990) or frowning (Wind Mask, 2016). These faces invite you to search for the depths in the holes where eyes could be; they convey the sense that the artist treated the trees from which he carved them as living kin.
Many of the works included have ceremonial lives, particularly within Potlatch, an economic and legal structure integral to Indigenous traditions of the Pacific Northwest. Banned from 1884–1951 by the Canadian government – part of the ongoing project of colonial genocide – Potlatch is an intricate feast involving confirmation of familial and spiritual status, law making, the transmission of vital knowledge through storytelling, dance and ritual, as well as radical gifting, whereby the host demonstrates their power by destroying or giving away their wealth. Three Atłaḱima masks (Atłaḱim I-III, c.1990) included in this exhibition are part of a larger series of such masks Dick carved for Potlatch ceremonies. The artist helped revive the practice of ceremonially burning the masks after they were danced in four Potlatches; the Atłaḱima are meant to be devoured by fire so they may be re-carved, and thus continue to live – a radical refusal of Western art’s obsession with ownership, preservation and commodification.
In the front window of the gallery, three commanding Hamaťsa masks are installed in a cluster. Intricately painted in traditional Formline style and embellished with tufts of red cedar bark and plumage, Moogums (1985), Crooked Beak (2017) and Supernatural Raven (1990) are regalia for the Hamaťsa secret society, a prestigious Kwakwaka’wakw group whose initiates become possessed by the spirit of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, a mythical, many-mouthed cannibal, and are driven into a frenzy by an insatiable desire to gorge themselves. Such noxious desire causes them to crouch, crawl and writhe on the ground. During the ceremony, by snapping their masks’ bird beaks, the Hamaťsas support the initiate as he conquers the urge to mindlessly consume; he sloughs the spirit of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, and stands upright again. Here, the fearsome birds’ beaks are tied shut with white ribbon.
‘My conscience tells me we have to fight back’, Dick once remarked of the compulsion to waste; ‘it is a war on another level; nonviolent, but spiritual.’ Our habit of devouring is devouring us, disrupting the natural cycles of the universe. Although Dick has bound the Hamat’sa beaks here and the masks lie still, they serve as a reminder that even the contemporary art world is complicit in the devouring machinery of capitalism, and that we all – dancers or not – hold the responsibility to stand up straight and break our destructive patterns of consumption.
‘Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism’ continues at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Canada, through 2 September 2019.
Main image: ‘Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Canada; photograph: Blaine Campbell
Natasha Chaykowski is a writer and curator based in Calgary, Alberta, on Treaty 7 Territory. Currently, she is Director at Untitled Art Society.
Mercedes Webb (Malidi Hanuse) is a Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw writer and art historian. Her writing aims to employ Indigenous epistemologies and personal experience to the methods of contemporary art writing.