Monday, April 16, 2007

Raccoons, God’s Eyes, Burning Man and “Native Art”

I don’t want to comment on the politics of so called “native art”, that’s a subject for a whole different discussion, one which I am not qualified to write about authoritatively.* What I do want to address though are the forms that get relegated to the “native art” category, specifically woodcarving, mask making, and to a lesser extent textile work. What I wanted to point out was that “the natives” don’t have a monopoly on these forms, nor do they claim to as far as I know. I bring this up because I recently discovered how much I enjoy making masks. Some of you may have seen the recent portrait show at the gaff gallery where I showed my raccoon mask. Ive always liked sewing, and ive always liked animals.

Anyway, recently ive been wanting to make outfits of some of my favourite animals so that I can dress up as them, just because it feels good. My raccoon mask was not the first manifestation of that desire. When I was a kid I often had my mom make animal suits for me for fasching (kind of like Halloween and carnival in Germany) when other kids wanted to be Batman, I just wanted to be a bat. That desire to make costumes and wear them is the same as the desire I have to make any form of artwork, at its most basic level, the drive is for creating something, it gives my life meaning.

Now I have to say that I really admire traditional northwest coast artwork, and out of all the artwork I have seen in my life, not just nw coast stuff, the animal masks are some of my favorite pieces. Likewise I like the costumes and outfits from the numerous cultures of the pacific islands, and while I have to admit that my appreciation of these cultural artifacts is pretty much limited to the look of the thing, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, and I don’t treat my enjoyment of other cultures artwork any differently than I treat the enjoyment of artwork from my own (think Hollywood movies). Anyway what I’m driving at here is that it has occurred to me that the appreciation and understanding of those artworks is incomplete without the significance of context. Furthermore, from my own perspective, this significance often finds its expression in the ritual use of the object, more so than even the object its self. For example I understand that in eastern coastal New Guinea a mask was often made for one occasion only, and the mask would be ceremonially incinerated after use. ( the accompanying image is of what a mask from new guinea would probably look like being incinerated.) Or think also of the more familiar Potlatch and the use of artwork in a ceremonial way. I know I know, citations needed here. I’ll save deconstructing the concept of ritual for another time, for now lets just take the word to describe a collective or personal spiritual experience involving a symbolic gesture.

Now, I’ve never felt like I want to somehow inject myself into another cultures ritual practices, but I have often felt a sort of sadness at the meager ritualistic experiences I have had in my life. The only such occasion I can think of, in fact, is fasching when I made along with all the other kids lanterns out of paper, and would walk out in the fading evening light in a big line. I cant remember why we did it, but it felt good and significant (to me as a 6 year old) , also I got to dress up as an animal on such occasions. This experience is altogether missing from my adult life, and I think a lot of other adults lives as well. The desire for experiences of this sort lead people to do a lot of strange things, major religions aside, there are mass suicides ufo cults, and the burning man festival in Nevada. While I haven’t yet been to burning man, I myself have turned to ritual while confronted with the hardships of the Canadian outdoors. I don’t think I am the only treeplanter to have ever buried a cookie or part of their lunch in the ground as a symbolic sacrifice to the land in hopes of easy planting.

OK, I know it says raccoonS in the title and the reason for the plural is that I would like to see all my friends also make raccoon masks. Wearing these masks we could then go dumpster diving together. Thereby culturalizing our collective conviction that waste is bad. also, how cute would it be to see a bunch of raccoons sitting around a campfire drinking beer and playing ukuleles.

I guess I'll have to get to the gods eyes some other time, but its related to ritual, and Megans sister once made one that shook the foundations of what i thought was possible with yarn.