Making peace with Aboriginal history through art

Tunics of the Changing Tide, a painting by First Nations artist Marianne Nicolson, has transformed the Dzawada̱’enux̱w Nation’s history and story into artwork. Nicolson’s work will be exhibited at the Walter C.Koerner Library at UBC from Jan. 13– Apr. 9.

In the summer of 1980, at the age of eleven, Nicolson moved to Kingcome Inlet from Vancouver with her mother, a member of the Dzawada̱’enux̱w First Nations, a tribe of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Her father was Scottish.

Staying close to the land of her ancestors dramatically changed Nicolson’s life. She believes these days spent in Kingcome Inlet really helped her become who she is today.

“Tracing the push and pull of world views through the materials she uses, Nicolson’s work is part of a contemporary resurgence of Indigenous cultural practice and a means to resist its political and social assimilation,” says Lorna Brown, who works as the executive director of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.

Revitalizing Indigenous culture

In Nicolson’s paintings, two back views of tunics are placed on black- and grey-bordered backgrounds. A tree with thunderbirds and mink is portrayed on the tunics. Nicolson says that she did a lot of research within her own community while creating her artwork.

Tunics of the Changing Tide: Kwikwasut’inuxw Histories (back). | Photo courtesy of Two Rivers Gallery

The artist was looking back at the Indigenous history when First Nations culture was strong enough to absorb the European influence. In early 19th century, First Nations people started to sew decorative and elaborate tunics. But in 1884, the potlatches were banned by federal government under the Indian Act. Indigenous culture was suppressed afterwards. However, the tunics were revived by young members 10 or 15 years ago.

“I was thinking of this revitalization of cultural forms, a symbol of a time when we were strong enough to absorb the influence.That’s the symbol of changing tides,” says Nicolson. “We really work hard to revitalize the cultural forms, our ceremony, our language, all these things. There is a change in the tide. That’s what these tunics represent.”

Nicolson’s mother had been sent to residential school. Nicolson’s aunt and uncle had no choice but to follow in the same footsteps. After witnessing the depression the family suffered from, Nicolson became an activist. She describes herself as being ‘blunt and honest.’

“I wanted to do what I could to help, and I think bring an awareness to these issues is great. I am politically engaged in revitalizing our culture at home and in our traditional political structure as well,” says Nicolson.

Recovering the
ancestors’ footing

From Nicolson’s perspective, First Nation’s ways of understanding the world have been suppressed. She now uses her art practice as a way of keeping it alive. Consistently working on her art for the past twenty years has helped the artist in her quest for her people’s recovery.

“[I] work for helping my own people to recover their footing and to gain their strength back,” says Nicolson.

Nicolson completed a massive painting on the cliff located at the front of Kingcome Inlet in 1998, which was created to acknowledge the connection between the Dzawada̱’enux̱w People and their territory. The painting is of a large copper – a shield-shaped symbol – over 50 feet high and 32 feet wide, making it a highly visible piece of art. She was doubting herself the whole time when she was working on it.

“I was terrified the whole time that [the cliff painting] was gonna be crap. I am gonna live there the rest of my life, everybody else is gonna live there too, ” Nicolson says, laughing. “Thank God [the cliff painting] turned out to be great.”

Nicolson was five years old when she decided to become an artist. Although she had no idea what the exact definition of artist was at that time, she still made up her mind to pursue that career.

“I really pursued it and there [was no thought] that being an artist is wrong,” she says.

Although Nicolson completed a PhD in Linguistics, Anthropology and Art History at the University of Victoria, she sometimes still felt a little doubtful while she was working on the artwork.

“Marianne Nicolson will further graphically explore the symbols – stars, otters, suns, buttons, coins, eagles – that feature in the heraldry of nations such as Britain, Canada, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw and China to investigate the historical and contemporary economic relationships they signal,” says Brown. “In the context of treaty negotiations over many unceded territories, Nicolson points to the differing meanings of symbolic representation across cultures as an indication of divergent values and attitudes toward land and resources.”

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