Watching first nations’ artists carve their works is nothing new for Victoria, where Thunderbird Park, around the corner from the legislative buildings, was the site of a carving shed from its opening in 1941.
But it’s not every day that a Coast Salish artist sits down for a demonstration with carver friends from the Iatmul tribe in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Elaine Monds, founder and director of Alcheringa Gallery on Yates Street in Victoria, has been facilitating such cross-cultural interactions for a number of years. And it was on her premises that three carvers were at work with their tools on Saturday, showing visitors how it’s done.
This was the fourth visit to Vancouver Island for Claytus Yambon, who is well acquainted with artist John Marston of Ladysmith. In 2009, the two of them participated in a project called Hailans to Ailans which paired Papua New Guinea aboriginal artists and their Northwest Coast counterparts. Near Marston’s home, Yambon and Marston carved a magnificent red cedar war canoe called “Bummdianmari” (one mind, one people), that features a prow with female image and a stylized alligator. The sides of the canoe display carvings integrating the motifs of both cultures.
“It was the most unexpected thing that ever happened in my life,” said Yambon of that first venture into another Pacific art tradition. He was whittling away at a swamp hen, a creature that is central to the Iatmul way of life. “They are what we survive on.” Beside him, Marston was in the early stages of carving a mask out of a large disk of alder. For him too the exchange with the Papua New Guineans, which took him to Yambon’s village in Sepik, was a life-changer. “It expanded not only my art practice but my life’s horizons. Witnessing a culture that is relatively intact from ancient times to today was pretty moving for me.”
Both his parents were carvers, said Marston, as is his brother Luke. “We work with alder when its green, as it dries it gets harder and changes colour. This mask will be dark brown when it’s finished.” The smooth face, which will ultimately incorporate both female and male aspects, showed a remarkable serenity.
Edward Dumoi, also from Sepik, was carving a cat. It was his first time in British Columbia. “I’m self-taught,” said Dumoi, noting that his father who died when Edward was young had been an artist. Dumoi’s work bridges the traditional and the contemporary. Domestic cats are a favourite subject, carved with the same panache as his totemic finials for houseposts. He can see the effects of the cultural exchanges that have been going on across the Pacific. “After John had been to visit us, I noticed that he’d used some of our stylings in his work. Maybe I’ll do the same,” he said, with a broad grin.