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People of the Cedar: First Nations Art from the Northwest Coast of Canada

People of the Cedar: First National Art from the Northwest Coast of Canada

People of the Cedar: First Nations Art from the Northwest Coast of Canada was an exhibition of contemporary and historic native art which expressed the richness of artistic culture among the First Nation Peoples of Canada's Northwest Coast, both past and present.

About the exhibition

Dogfish and grizzly bear mask
Walter Harris, Dogfish and grizzly bear mask, 1973, High Commission of Canada, Australia.

The exhibition featured works celebrating the artistic expression and cultural identity of Canada's First Nation peoples in the western province of British Columbia. It included masks and carvings, cedar bark weaving, textiles, works on paper and paintings. Predominantly made from yellow and red cedar wood and cedar bark, the works reflected the artists' deeply spiritual relationship to the western Canadian coast and forests.

The core collection was established as a travelling exhibition in the mid-1970s by the then Canadian Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs Canada) as the First Nation peoples began to reaffirm themselves in the modern multicultural society of Canada. Today, the work of the First Nations artists from the northwest coast is universally recognised and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide.

The exhibition included 47 works from the Canadian High Commission's collection, augmented by objects from the collections of the National Gallery in Canberra and the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Twenty-five artists from nine different First Nation groups were represented in the exhibition. There were many variations in technique and style which highlighted the artists' direct and ongoing connection with the land and its stories, both past and present.

Artists included Dempsey Bob (Tahltan/Tlingit), Joe David (Nuu-Chah-Nulth), Freda Diesing (Haida), Walter Harris (Gitxsan), Fred Modeste (Coast Salish), Glen Rabena (Yakima/Haida), Ron Sebastian (Gitxsan/Wet'suwet'en), Roy Henry Vickers (Tsimshian) and Glen Wood (Gitxsan/Tsimshian).

Alcan and the High Commission of Canada, AustraliaThe exhibition was the result of collaboration between the National Museum of Australia and the Canadian High Commission in Canberra. The exhibition programs were made possible by the generous support of Alcan.

The co-curators of the exhibition were Inge Rumble of the Canadian High Commission, Canberra, and Rocque Berthiaume, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

People of the Cedar was on show at the National Museum of Australia from 2 March to 28 May 2006 in the First Australian's Focus Gallery.

Exhibition themes

The story of the People of the Cedar

The northwest coast of Canada has been inhabited for at least nine millennia. The culture developed by the people of the region was rich and distinctive. Salmon was the most important source of food as well as the focal point of the economy. The cedar forests provided raw materials for clothing and shelter.

In tribal mythology the cedar is a spiritual tree which possesses power and soul. The cedar growing through a hole in the sky was believed to be the axis of the world and a pathway to the upper world. Cedar was used for canoes, totem poles, and for the construction of Big Houses. Red cedar was used for big panels; yellow cedar was used for fine carving of masks, bowls and small objects. Contemporary artists continue to be inspired by the land, the animals and the cedar tree.

Many works of art in the exhibition were based on traditional items used in ceremonial and celebratory events. Art has always pervaded the life of the people, indicating the owner's social status. Art was emphasised during potlatches (celebrations in which guests share food and receive gifts or payments) and other feasts. In winter, elaborate rituals took place in which performers danced wearing carved masks.

Kitanmaax School of northwest coast art

Most of the works in the High Commission collection were made at the Kitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, established in the 1970s at the Gitxsan village of Ksan in northern British Columbia. The school offers a four-year program dedicated to the renewal and passing of art forms to succeeding generations. Many recognised artists of today, such as Dempsey Bob, Freda Diesing and Walter Harris mark their beginnings at the school.

The exhibition included the work of the late Freda Diesing, an award-winning artist from the Haida group, who taught at the Kitanmaax School.

Historic Australian Collections

The exhibition included loans from the Australian Museum collection, one of the largest in Australia. The Australian Museum's collection includes material collected from the beginning of the 19th century, and a large group of works collected from an early 20th-century entrepreneur who brought a west-coast Canadian dance troupe to Australia.

The National Gallery of Australia has a small collection of works in its Max Ernst Collection. Max Ernst, a 20th-century surrealist artist, collected and studied so-called 'primitive art' to develop his own style.

The Melbourne Museum has a 12 metre late 19th century Haida totem pole.

Banner image: Freda Diesing, Moon mask, 1976, High Commission of Canada, Australia. Photo: Marcus Fillinger.