The Transforming Image
Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First NationsBook - 2000
All who have seen the results so far agree that ... [the paintings] being revealed to us are [among] the great masterpieces not only of the Northwest Coast, but of the whole world. -- Bill Reid
Struck by the dynamic character of a nineteenth-century Northwest Coast painted chest that he had walked past many times at the museum where he worked, Bill McLennan decided to photograph it for closer study. Infrared film produced surprising results. Painted areas that had been obscured with a patina of oils and soot could now be clearly seen, as the complete painting emerged from beneath the weathered surface. With this find, the Image Recovery Project was born, whose object was to produce a database of infrared photographs of historical Northwest Coast paintings.
The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations brings together some of the most intriguing images, many revealed for the first time in over a hundred years. Karen Duffek's text adds new insights derived from the project's detective work, linking painted images to communities, histories, and the hands of individual painters.
The story of Northwest Coast painting is continuous and unfolding. It begins with the emergence of the painted line on cedar and skin: the first brushstrokes of an expressive tradition thousands of years in the making. Like the painted images themselves, this story has been shaped by the hands of generations of painters and by the forces of history. Its visual language is at once organic and highly structured. Its forms speak of space and balance, of tension and release. Its themes belong as much to the ancient past as to the present day, linking oral narrative and the visible world, and crossing the boundaries between human, animal, and spiritual realms.
The Transforming Image arose from the need of current generations to gain access to the creative achievements of their ancestors and to build on the cultural knowledge that the old paintings could reveal. The ravenous collecting of painted works, coupled with the depopulation and suppression of Native culture, eventually left only a remnant of this rich material heritage in British Columbia. Now scattered throughout the world in museums and private collections are the bentwood storage boxes, chiefs' chests, drums, and other objects that were the 'canvas' for Northwest Coast painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Only gradually are some of these properties being returned to the people whose ancestors made and used them. The repatriation of images through photography offers at least a partial solution and brings these works to a wider audience as well.