Friday, August 6, 2010

Haida silver bracelet

I was just in Montreal, which I will post about soon, and bought a silver bracelet by a Haida artist named John Brent Bennett. I have always admired Northwest Coast American Indian art, but don't know much about it. I respond to its highly stylized images, and the great skill and sophistication of much of the objects from those cultures. I have seen other bracelets, and so when I was in Montreal, I went to the Canadian Guild of Crafts on Sherbrooke St., quite close to the Musee Des Beaux Arts. And there were just three engraved bracelets by this Haida artist, and I chose this one because it had the most identifiable features. On wearing it, I have learned a lot about Haida art, and finally have been able to decipher the imagery. And now I understand why I love Northwest Coast Indian art; it is part of a shamanic culture that extends the rim of the Pacific Culture. You find echoes in its imagery from thousands of years and miles apart. It is no accident this, but a product of a way of looking at the world, and communing with it and the spirit world as well as a sustained tradition and contacts that account for these similarities.

Three quarters side view, showing the face with part of the side. What we are looking at is an exploded body of an animal, I think here a badger, or bear, but not sure which. The face is clear enough, the claw is apparent, less obvious is the entire arm, and the rear leg which are also done in the same stylized manner. Once you see it, you see it, before, it was just a bunch of shapes tucked together.

The other side view, you can here make out the foreleg and the rear leg with claws that curl around the bracelet.

Now you might wonder why I would post about what at first glance might appear to be a tourist trinket. Some points to be made; this is hand engraved, and deeply so, by someone highly skilled with tremendous vision and understanding of his cultural traditions. He has captured the essence of a beast in what appears first to be pure pattern. This is an example of shamanic art at its best. I had not thought such traditions could be kept alive in our modern world, I think I may be wrong. Below are the other traditions and objects that this seemingly minor object relates to in my mind.

This basalt yoke is from Veracruz Mexico dating to the 5th to 7th Century A.D., which sold at Sotheby's New York in May of 2005. (Image found on google on It is carved with a stylized image of a frog who is stretched over both sides of the yoke. I see a strong similarity and it is not an accident, both are New World cultures and even if separated by time and space, they belong to the same cultural milieu. The images are not only about spirit animals, the one a shaman would transform into in his trances, but also apotropaic, the object was animate and would ward off evil.

This is a photo of a section of an Archaic Chinese bronze vessel, showing the classic Shang Dynasty toatie mask, which is an exploded monster figure stretched out across the surface of the vessel.

Here, from another google search as was the image above, is a diagrammed taotie mask, with the parts labeled. The same diagrammatic depiction as on my Haida bracelet.

The visual similarity between these archaic chinese toatie masks, my Haida bracelet and the pre-Columbian yoke is not coincidence, despite there being thousands of miles and years apart. As said before, they were all shamanic cultures, where the shaman was taking drugs going into a trance to commune with the spirit world. While not much is known about the more ancient religions, we do know a lot about that of the Haida and other Northwest Coast American Indians, as they are still with us and much tradition has been passed down. They are essentially animist, seeing spirit in all living things, animals being seen as prey and spirits that must be respected and appealed to for their own prosperity and protection. Who is to say we cannot work backwards taking the visual similarities and think that the ancient Chinese also saw the natural world in a similar manner? Or the pre-Columbians?
Such are the musings I have on what some might regard as a tourist trinket.


Kris Odahowski said...

Interesting blog, I am using the drawing you found of the taotie mask in a Library program.

Anonymous said...

Please do not take offense, but I am not so comfortable with you labelling Haida art as "shamanic." Haida culture and art is much more complex than you are portraying it. Also, your comparison of Haida art to ancient civilizations makes it seem like you think of Haida art and culture as being primitive.

Toms art report said...

I know very little about contemporary Haida culture, and a little about earlier. I am saddened that you would take shamanic as a derogatory description, and find that comparisons to ancient culture demeaning. I for one, hate Christianity and contemporary religions, so for me to compare something to ancient cultures is the highest praise I can give. Please accept my post in that spirit.

john rose said...

Great art & a wonderful respect for ancient art. I personally love the carvings on the sterling silver bracelets. Though I wonder, can I wear them as fashion jewellery or are the ones depicted only for religious/shamanistic ritual use? I specially like the way you've pointed out the stylistic carvings on the yoke & bracelet.