Reinventing Coast Salish art

Roxanne Charles demonstrates the silencing of Coast Salish women through her art

The six artists featured in the new exhibit Intangible running from Sept. 13–Dec. 10 at the Bill Reid Art Gallery are reinventing Coast Salish art, while staying connected to history.

Each work of art tells a story of the artist behind it, confronts current issues and challenges your perception of what Coast Salish art is. Through multimedia, glasswork, graphics and spoken word, these six artists, hailing from across Coast Salish territory, bring to life their vision.

Marvin Oliver reinvents basket weaving by making them with glass.

“We’re just trying to make people appreciate how it is today as well as how it was in the past; to let people be themselves and express themselves,” says guest curator Sharon Fortney. For Fortney, this project was one year in the making. She brought in artists Aaron Nelson-Moody (Tawx’sin Yexwulla), lessLIE (Leslie Sam), Marvin Oliver, Ostwelve (Ronnie Dean Harris), Roxanne Charles and Tracy Williams (Sesemiya) to contribute to Intangible because of the contemporary spin these artists are putting on traditions that have been passed down from generations. The exhibition presents paintings next to sculptures, baskets made out of glass that are on the other side of a pair of moccasin shoes and a television displaying video, mounted on a wall across from a mannequin draped in pieces of cloth. The pieces on display show there is no right or wrong way to reflect on Coast Salish culture and by creating new works these artists are breaking out of a box an outsider has created for them.

The need for creation

Definitions have put us in boxes, we’re more than that, we’re more than what our status cards say,” says Ostwelve (Ronnie Dean Harris), from Sto:lo Territory of BC (Fraser Valley). This is the first time he has used video in an exhibition. In his piece, he visits places that are sacred to him, places where his grandparents took him, there he contemplates what it means to be Coast Salish and expresses that in the video. For Ostwelve, a large part of his culture has been erased, so he creates pieces that express what he knows about the culture at this point in time and space. He does so by using multimedia and spoken word to get his point across. “My grandmothers were weavers and now I use words to weave things,” he says.

His work reflects why there is a need for constant creation and redefinition of what it means to be Coast Salish.

Reinventing Coast Salish art

Marvin Oliver etches design into his glass work.

All of the artists are “faithfully reproducing,” says Fortney. Instead of weaving baskets, Oliver sandblasts glass to etch art into art. Nelson-Moody uses traditional copper to create an original sculpture that tells a story of his grandfather. Charles uses her art to start a conversation about the silencing of Coast Salish women, food security and the fentanyl crisis happening in the city. From the use of fish skin leather by Williams to lessLIE’s reinvention of logos, the artists explore their individual connections to their culture and the world around them. “There are things that people believe or were taught, that they just can’t talk about, that’s in the artwork. There’s more than what you might see sitting in front of you,” says Fortney.

Intangible is about knowing the rules first and then breaking them. “Once you understand how it’s made and how to do it then you need to take it somewhere new,” says Fortney. The artists are bringing their own authenticity to their pieces instead of conforming to what outsiders see as being authentically Coast Salish. “We decide what Coast Salish art is,” says Ostwelve.

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