The aboriginal artists of BC’s northwest coast didn’t start signing their work until the 1940s. Not because they had no sense of leaving a physical legacy, but because it was the ownership of a piece—not the creation of it, that mattered.
Back then, artists were high-ranked chiefs to begin with; otherwise they would not have been taught how to produce their work. Ownership of their work thus added to the prestige of the person who commissioned it. As is the case in all cultures throughout recorded history, art collections were symbols of prominence.
The lack of signatures has created challenges for northwest coast art historians. Unless they’re studying the work of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924), who remains the pre-eminent artist of BC’s northwest coast.
Aboriginal cultures were introduced to European art forms during the course of the fur trade. The Europeans brought items of all kinds, from furnishings and utensils, to clothing and textiles (the walls of Edenshaw’s studio were papered with the London Illustrated Daily News).
Edenshaw used these forms and influences to much greater advantage than did his peers. While carving Haida mythological creatures into an argillite dish, for example, he used these new, non-traditional shapes to give his forms more character and individualism; to make them less stiff, more animated. Meanwhile, his wife, Isabella, was a talented weaver. Her work is easily identified because of her patterns, and because Charles painted the finished pieces. And the main reason that their work is easily identifiable is that, whether carving, painting or making jewellery, Edenshaw’s work carries a particularly high, distinct level of elegance and craftsmanship.
In Edenshaw’s day, it was extremely rare for an aboriginal artist to be able to live by his art. But Edenshaw enjoyed a worldwide reputation and did very well. While he apparently never traveled further south than Victoria, he received commissions from the world’s major museums, collectors and ethnographers. When the American cities were building their museums, totem poles were de rigueur—now, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has more northwest coast art than do the three major BC museums combined.
Other artists saw Edenshaw’s success and the great demand for his work and began copying it. So identifying certain things, like mid-19th century miniature totem poles, can be problematic. But as Bill McLennan, projects manager at the UBC Museum of Anthropology notes, “People may have tried to replicate Edenshaw’s work. You could still try to. But you’d have to be a superb craftsman. And if you were that good, you could make a nice living on your own.”
McLennan has put together a small exhibit to show people how art historians go about identifying the work of an artist. There are just 12 pieces, plus a collection of hats (and three gold bracelets never before seen in public). The exhibit is accompanied by detailed photography showing how the experts can state, with certainty, that a piece is the unsigned work of the master craftsman, Charles Edenshaw.
Blitz Magazine, March 2000