Haida Manga exhibition explores identity, environmentalism and the human condition

The Seriousness of Play, an exhibition of the unique art that is Haida Manga and created by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas will be on display until Oct. 2 at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.

Haida Manga is a combination of iconographies and frame lines from the culture of the North Pacific Indigenous peoples along with the manga Asian art form.


Artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas | Photo courtesy of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas | Photo courtesy of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Yahgulanaas has worked with a large variety of different art forms, including sculptures, canvases, ink drawings, ceramics and public art projects, but he is better known as the creator of Haida Manga, a fusion of the hugely popular manga art form with Haida culture. The artist began his journey into the world of art early on, driven by the knowledge of the creative exploits of some of his predecessors.

“As the descendant of iconic artists Isabella Edenshaw, Charles Edenshaw and Delores Churchill, my early training was knowing that there were exceptional creators and master carvers in my community,” he says.

Before becoming an artist full-time, Yahgulanaas worked for years on the Haida Nation’s campaign to protect its biocultural diversity. After he became a full-time artist he studied calligraphy at the Canton School of Art, which was instrumental in the eventual creation of Haida Manga.

“It wasn’t until the late 1990s after I was exposed to Chinese brush techniques under the tutelage of Cantonese master Cai Ben Kwon that I consciously began to merge Haida and Asian artistic influences,” says Yahgulanaas.

Creating new art

Manga is a popular form of comics and cartooning created in Japan, with modern manga originating and gaining large popularity in the years following the Second World War. Yahgulanaas’ work takes the distinctive manga look and combines it with images that relate to the culture of the Haida people.

“My work explores themes of identity, environmentalism and the human condition,” says Yahgulanaas, “and uses art to communicate a world view that while particular to Haida Gwaii is also relevant to a contemporary audience.”

He does so with art that he describes as “playful but also serious,” that looks to engage with social issues through dialogue, action or simply inward reflection. Haida Manga has spread since its creation, with Yahgulanaas using his unique style to spread his messages in books, which have been published both nationally and in Asia and in exhibits such as the one at the Bill Reid Gallery.

“Within the Yahgulanaas clan and the Haida Nation, we welcome vibrancy and relevancy. In the larger indigenous world, I sense there is an understanding that it is important that colonizing societies quickly learn to recalibrate their filters,” Yahgulanaas says.

That is one of the messages that Yahgulanaas is attempting to communicate through his art, as well as through his travels to speak to businesses, institutions and communities about social justice, community building and change. On why he thinks Haida Manga has had the impact it has, Yahgulanaas is clear.

“People, regardless of ethnicity and class, hunger for a more honest relationship with each other. Canadians know there is something missing in the representation of indigeneity and Haida Manga offers an emotional conduit that is accessible,” he says.

For more information on the exhibit, visit billreidgallery.ca.