On the West Coast, in the rich and diverse world of First Nations art, the master carvers responsible for the totem poles and myriad other monumental works are usually men.
There are exceptions. And two exceptional women – trailblazing female First Nations artists who have carved their way into Canadian cultural history – are getting their due in two new exhibitions. Pioneering Kwakwaka’wakw carver Ellen Neel is being celebrated at a show in Victoria, 50 years after her death. And Musqueam artist Susan Point has a comprehensive, magnificent solo show opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend.
It wasn’t planned, but having these two shows mounted at the same time on the West Coast is notable and meaningful. “As we have come to recognize indigenous art more, the emphasis has been largely on men. And I think it’s really important that we call forward the names of indigenous women,” said Carolyn Butler Palmer, the curator of the exhibition Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver.
The name of the Neel show, at the University of Victoria’s Legacy Art Gallery Downtown, is intentionally provocative, its organizers say. It’s meant to draw out other stories of female indigenous carvers who would have been forced to work underground, along with their male counterparts, during the dark years of the potlatch ban.