Today, we’re looking at art created on two continents five thousand miles apart, and separated in age by a little less than a century: “contemporary aboriginal art” from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Surrealist art from Paris. Both are in Vancouver, Canada.
We are staying in the Listel Hotel, which prides itself on its art collection. According to its literature, it has a reputation as Vancouver’s “most art-full” hotel. The two pieces in our room, along with a third that greets us as we exit the elevator on our floor, are what we in the U. S. call Northwest Native American art and Canadians call First Nations people’s art or Aboriginal art.
I wrote the first sentence of this post before we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Surrealism exhibit. As I wrote it, I thought about how distinct these art forms were and doubted that I should have referred to them both in the same sentence.
At the museum, when we entered the first room of the exhibit, I was surprised to see two paintings by Greek artist Giorgio De Chirico and two Northwest Native ceremonial pieces, accompanied by a long explanation of why they were both occupying the same space. According to the text, what the pieces share in common are “exceptional powers. Each work acknowledges — whether to challenge or enforce — the superior authority of their ancestors.” Not only in the first room, but throughout the exhibit Aboriginal masks and other carving were interspersed among the Surrealist paintings, drawings and sculptures.
The Surrealists liked to provoke coincidences, like throwing a pebble into a pool of water to see where the ripples would go. They would have loved this one: One of the ceremonial carved statues on display had been confiscated in 1922 from the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples by the Canadian government in an attempt to Europeanize them. By 1924, that same piece landed in the hands of Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist Manifesto. Eighty-seven years later, works by most of the artists that were influenced by Breton and this piece of local sculpture are on display together. A mere coincidence?