A legacy beyond art New exhibit showcases the impactful work and life of Tseshaht artist George Clutesi

George Clutesi, Mask of Plenty, 1944. | Photo courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

GEORGE CLUTESI: ḥašaḥʔap / ʔaapḥii / ʕc̓ik / ḥaaʔaksuqƛ / ʔiiḥmisʔap is a retrospective exhibition currently premiering in Vancouver until Jan 19, 2025 at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. The exhibition explores the life and legacy of George Clutesi, a Tseshaht First Nation artist, actor, writer and ambassador for Canadian Indigenous culture, recognized for his role in preserving and celebrating the Nuu-chah-nulth community’s cultural traditions and customs.

For Aliya Boubard, curator for the Bill Reid Gallery, it’s an essential chance to showcase the artist’s impact, not only of his work, but in his life as well.

“Clutesi came from the Nuu-chah-nulth community, and this exhibition is really a retrospective of his life while also showcasing the work of seven contemporary artists and scholars who are responding to Clutesi’s work,” says Boubard.

Commemorating an artist and educator

Clutesi aimed to create and share his work throughout his career so his voice for the Tseshaht community would never completely disappear, even after his death. His artworks, created from the 1940s until the 1980s, consist of different prints, paintings and sketches, all forms of which are featured in the exhibition.

George Clutesi, Two Figures, 1959. | hoto courtesy of University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries.

The exhibition celebrates not only Clutesi’s work as an artist, but his past as an educator of Nuu-chah-nulth culture. His first published novel, Son of Raven, Son of Deer, was one of the first books that was written about Tseshaht culture.

“He was incredibly influential and did so much to educate people… He was quite well known throughout his career and during the time he was alive, but since then his name has kind of dropped a bit,” says Boubard. “Through this exhibition, we really wanted people to get to know who he was and the importance of the work he did throughout his life.”

Boubard notes that a big part of the exhibition’s inspiration was a film created to be shown alongside it. The film interviews several survivors of the Alberni Valley Residential School: Clutesi attended that residential school, and also worked there as a custodian later in his life. In the film, the survivors discuss the impact Clutesi had on them while he was working there.

“He showed them love, care and compassion in an environment that was really traumatic in so many ways. So this film was a way of showing who George Clutesi was as a human and the kindness he shared with those survivors,” says Boubard.

Tseshaht artist George Clutesi in 1969, whose art, and legacy, is currently on display at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. | Photo by Dane Campbell, courtesy of Alberni Valley Museum.

The exhibit also features books published by the artist and snippets of newspaper clippings and articles written about Clutesi both during his career and after his passing in 1988. Boubard also notes the original curators of the exhibition included text that featured writing both about and by Clutesi.

“They really wanted to incorporate his own voice in addition to the exhibition, which comes through quite clearly when you read through some of the panels in the gallery,” says Boubard.

Boubard also notes the artwork included in the exhibition consists of art from both museum collections and personal collections. Some of the artwork was even framed by Clutesi himself. Overall, the exhibit looks to give audiences a sense of where all his artwork came from, and truly highlight the artist’s lasting legacy.

“He was an extraordinary person and he left quite a memorable legacy. So we really want people just to know who he was, in the same way that we educate people about Bill Reid and his legacy as well,” says Boubard.

For more information, visit: www.billreidgallery.ca/blogs/exhibitions-page/george-clutesi