First Nations Art Collection at Vancouver Airport Is a Cultural Treasure

First Nations Art Collection at Vancouver Airport Is a Cultural Treasure

Hans Tammemagi

Disembarking from their jet planes after a long flight, weary travelers entering the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) expecting to be assaulted by the usual flurry of retail outlets and fast-food franchises are in for a pleasant surprise: Rather than navigate drab and dingy passageways that slowly lead them to customs, the visitors stroll through a traditional post-and-beam longhouse doorway leading into Pacific Passage. It’s a large gallery dominated by Hetux, a multicolored thunderbird with a 21-foot wingspan—the keeper of the sky. A cedar whaling canoe sits majestically in the water, paddles up. A stylized owl watches from a nearby tree. A seal and gull sit amongst driftwood logs and rocks.

All these figures are decorated in the powerful red, green and black ovoids that characterize northwest coast Native art. The sounds of gulls and loons crying and of waves splashing are in the air. This otherworldly hall is the international passenger’s first taste of Canada.

These awe-inspiring pieces are just a small part of a stunning collection of Native art at the airport. This treasure trove—many of its pieces tucked into corners and discreetly woven into the airport’s layout—is one of the great cultural secrets of Canada.

YVR is renowned as one of the most visually appealing airports in the world, according to curator Rita Beiks, and was named best airport in North America in 2010 by Skytrax World Airport Awards.

Down a passageway from the grand entrance is the welcome hall of the Musqueam First Nation, on whose traditional land the airport sits. “This is my favorite part of the collection,” says Beiks, pointing to Flight, a 17-foot, red-cedar spindle whorl with carved images that depicts the theme of flight. Two eagles, symbols of power, are poised around the image of two men whose arms are raised, welcoming visitors and also symbolizing flight. The men’s chests are emblazoned with images of salmon. Coast Salish women have used the spindle whorl for centuries to spin mountain-goat wool into yarn.

“My favorite piece at the airport is the 17-foot spindle whorl I created in 1995, Flight,” says artist Susan Point, Musqueam First Nation, who created three of YVR’s iconic pieces. “It was monumental to carve and is the world’s largest. This spindle whorl draws from my traditions, but also my inspirations.”

Four large weavings hang nearby. Down a short flight of stairs, two towering cedar welcome-figures greet passengers. “This is only part of one of the best and largest collections of northwest coast Native art in the world,” Beiks says.

This project began in the early 1990s, she explains, when the Vancouver Airport Authority wanted to brand the airport, give it something that would make it stand out and be more than just another antiseptic, off-putting people-processing plant. The YVR Art Foundation was formed with the goal of promoting First Nations art because of “the outstanding beauty of their culture.” Given the Natives’ closeness to the land, their art would also showcase the natural beauty of British Columbia. A curator was hired, and a commitment was made to spend one percent of all future capital expenditures at YVR on art, ensuring that whenever there were a major expansion or renovation, new art pieces would be procured.

The initial thrust into Native art was funded by the expansion of the airport’s international terminal. Negotiations and discussions with the Musqueam First Nation led to the creation of the Musqueam Welcome Area in 1995. The program received a huge boost with the acquisition of Bill Reid’s Spirit of Haida Gwaii: the Jade Canoe, a monumental, six-ton bronze sculpture with a lustrous jade-green patina that beckons to be touched and stroked. It depicts a Haida canoe bearing 13 supernatural creatures, including the bear, the beaver, the dogish woman and the raven, who steers the craft with his wings and tail.

Some art critics call Jade Canoe one of the most significant sculptures of the 20th century, and Reid’s masterpiece is depicted on a Canadian $20 bill. He received $3 million for his work, at that time the most ever paid to a Canadian artist. It was installed in a central area of the airport in 1994.

To date, the airport has acquired about 200 pieces, and the value of the collection is estimated at anywhere from $15 million to $18 million on today’s market. There are six main groupings, and many smaller groups and individual pieces. These are permanent installations, there to greet travelers rather than go on exhibition tours. In addition, 41 display cases feature Native and non-Native British Columbia artists and change approximately three times a year.

A committee selects the artists who will create the next pieces based on recommendations by the curator. “Our goal is to represent both established and emerging artists,” says Beiks. “Usually we acquire a major, or icon, piece and several supporting pieces.”

The most recent purchase was Freedom to Move, a set of laminated panels installed in 2009. Beiks is currently searching for the next acquisitions, scheduled to be installed in 2014.

When YVR began its program in the mid 1990s, it was the first airport in the world to place a major focus on art. Since then, many airports have followed suit, but Beiks says YVR remains the only airport in the world to focus on Native art.

The YVR Art Foundation supports West Coast Native art through a scholarship program. Each year five young British Columbia Native artists are given a $5,000 stipend. The foundation also provides them with contacts, exposure to the art community, ongoing support during the award year and beyond and, most of all, inspiration. One year later, their work is displayed in the airport for 12 months.

A stroll through the facility provides a stream of constant surprises through chance encounters with supernatural creatures and the bold designs of Native displays. Point’s Cedar Connection, a giant old-growth stump emblazoned with an owl and human face, is next to the walkway from the Canada Line transit system, greeting travelers even before they enter the airport. Once inside they are welcomed by a 35-foot totem pole, Celebrating Flight, which towers over the atrium of the Link Building. Creator Raven is at the top, with man positioned under him. Also on the pole are thunderbird, whale, eagle, bear and frog.

The artist Don Yeomans incorporated symbols from other Western and Eastern cultures to recognize the multicultural nature of YVR. A painted moon mask hangs high over the pole. In the domestic terminal, six vertical cedar panels in Freedom to Move show the Raven with 12-foot-high wings, and a killer whale with an eagle in its tail. The artist, Steve Smith, said he hopes his piece will encourage travelers to slow down, contemplate and acknowledge their surroundings.

The most spectacular display is Supernatural World, surrounded by walkways and ramps full of rushing, suitcase-dragging passengers. A thunderbird swoops down to hunt the killer whale, who has a seal in his mouth. Human faces are represented on the side fins, a Bear on the dorsal fin and an eagle on the tail and in the blowhole. Carvings of an eagle, a raven, a human and a bear look down from above.

In another major installation, large cedar carvings of Fog Woman and Raven are set among retail shops and dining tables. In a mythological version of gold digging, Raven married Fog Woman for her salmon, as the story goes. But he eventually tired of her and mistreated her. She left, taking all the salmon. When Raven realized his mistake and tried to grab her, she turned into fog.

But Fog Woman wanted the people to have salmon, so once a year she allowed the fish to return to the streams to spawn, bringing food. That’s why a stream runs from the carvings to an aquarium representing the sea, above which hangs an enormous orca and stylized glass bull kelp. The display is beautiful and meaningful—representing the cycle of life—but unlike in a museum or gallery, the art is intermingled with the businesses, walkways and clamour of a modern airport.

Public reaction has been varied. Many passengers are so caught up in wheeling suitcases and rushing to their gates that they barely notice the beauty around them. But others stop and look. Jade Canoe is often surrounded by art students sketching in silent concentration as passengers dragging their carry-ons scuttle past.

One could spend hours in the airport enjoying world-class Native art. Though one’s feet may ache, the spirit will soar. Gazing at Point’s Musqueam Welcome Figures brings to mind her words: “Native art is still alive and thriving in North America. How many 9,000-year-old civilizations can say that?”

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