Wednesday, March 12, 2008
in the national gallery
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
Spirit of Haida Gwaii, Bill Reid's largest and most complex sculpture, is displayed at the river end of the Grand Hall. As if heading for the shoreline of the coastal village, the Spirit of Haida Gwaii represents a Haida canoe crammed with a bewildering variety of paddlers and passengers. The white sculpture is the original plaster pattern used to cast the bronze sculpture at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The plaster-cast was acquired by the Museum through the generosity of Maury and Mary Margaret Young of Vancouver.
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii features Raven and Eagle, the two principal Haida lineages that are coequal and represent two halves of a whole. The sculpture encompasses mythical creatures, animals, men and women, who together symbolize not just one culture but the entire family of living beings. The canoe is filled to overflowing with creatures who bite and claw one another as they doggedly paddle along.
From left to right, the creature sitting in the bow is Grizzly Bear, facing Bear Mother. Between them are their two Bear cub offspring, creatures that grew out of a children's poem by A.A. Milne. Next are: Beaver, who lived on the ocean floor hoarding all the fresh water and fish in the world; Dogfish Woman, with a great hooked beak, gill slits on her cheek, and a pointed head; and Mouse Woman, the traditional guide to those who travel from the human world to the non-human realms of Haida mythology.
At the stern is the steersman, Raven; he seems intent on manoeuvring the boat in a particular direction, but he may change course as his whim dictates. Beneath Raven's wing is a human figure, the grudging oarsman; he represents all the common people who labour to build and rebuild, stoically obeying orders and performing tasks allotted to them. Arched across the centre of the boat is Wolf, with his hind claws in Beaver's back and his teeth in Eagle's wing. Beneath Eagle is Frog. The prominent central figure is a shaman, the Haida chief Kilstlaai. As a symbol of authority he holds a speaker's staff; on the top of the staff is Killer Whale.
Commenting on where this boat may be heading, Bill Reid says:
There is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be or is he lost in a dream of his own dreaming? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.