“Photography, archive and memory are intimately connected. Memory and photography both involve the process of recording images that may be used to recall the past. Memory itself is often characterized as an archive: a store house of things, meanings and images. This gives the impression that one can appeal to memory in order to recover the past. Memory, however, does not take material or physical form in the way that photographs and archives usually do. It is not a photograph or a series of images to be gazed upon and it is not a library or database where records might be retrieved. Rather, memory, as we prefer to see it here, is mediation. It is the set of processes through which the past comes to us, but not just the uninterrupted transit of the past to the present. Memory is, in a sense, designed and shaped by the laws and practices of the present, which provide the structures for remembrance to take place.”1
As witness, orator, community knowledge carrier, and oral genealogist, Kwakwaka’wakw artist John Powell / Winidi, proposes Nump Ma Noche Gyai Yoo Lahss / We All Come From One Root.
The concept of ‘One Root’ is manifested in an extensive body of work
that articulates the powerful interconnectedness of First Nations identities, embedded within cultural practices, diversity, ceremony, art and the everyday. At the ‘Root’, family lineages and origins are pulled, held, shared, transformed, and recreated through a rigorous art and cultural practice. The exhibition is materialized through the interweaving of exhibition components – oral and video storytelling narratives, archival documentation, family photographs, portraiture, and First Nations Regalia.
The exhibition offers a multiplicity of entry points. Guided by ancestral knowledge and teachings, historical stories and photographs serve as a way of remembering one-another, honouring truths, and instigating a retelling. The core of the exhibition is comprised of life-size and larger-than-life fibre-based and hand-tinted family portraits, integrated with a selection from John’s elaborately crafted West-Coast Button Blanket Regalia. The work is further activated and deepened through a collection of video narratives in relation to the family portraits. As a result, identities are recorded, connected, reclaimed and redefined. Emerging from this transformation is a deep understanding of Nump Ma Noch Gyai Yoo Lahss / We All Come From One Root.
Nump Ma Noch Gyai Yoo Lahss was first co-curated for the Campbell River Museum (2016), by Liz Carter and Ken Blackburn. The project continues with an expanded iteration at CVAG, including local Kómoks First Nations connections as part of the presentation. It is important to note that
George Littlechild has been instrumental in this project since its inception.
In their introductory exhibition notes, Liz and Ken brought our attention to the importance of the ‘personal is political’, noting that “it is evident the work draws from a collective past, resides in a personal present and questions the future.” They elaborated on this perspective, and further stating how cross-cultural experiences unfold in the work, describing the exhibition as a “historical journey through Powell’s family lineage – representational of his traditional First Nations background, combined with a response to his cultural diversity. Powell descends from two intriguing cultures: his mother was Mamalilikulla and Kwakiutl of Village Island and Fort Rupert. His father was Welsh/Irish and English. This diversity shows in Powell’s manipulation of traditional forms, where hints of his Celtic origins mix with his Mamalilikulla roots.” With gratitude, we receive the work that has been done to shape this exhibition thus far, and to hold its form, here at the Comox Valley Art Gallery, as part of its ongoing journey. — Angela Somerset / Denise Lawson, CVAG collaborative curators
JOHN POWELL / WINIDI
I have enjoyed art-making all my life. My usual inspiration is my mother’s First Nations culture. I have fortunately lived all of formative life in the presence of this great culture. My other training comes from schooling in Costume,
Fashion, Interior, and Graphic Design. I am also a Traditional Regalia Maker.
I have worked in design for nearly 30 years.
My design education has enabled me to work in some very diverse areas: theatre, opera, residential design, graphic design, teaching, Northwest Coast design classes and Regalia-making. I have created costumes for numerous theatre productions, the most recent being “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” at Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. I was co-costume designer for the Vancouver Opera Society’s rendition of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. And in 2009 – 2010 I was the design coordinator for
the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
One of my names is Winidi (fights wars for his people). I am a Mamalilikulla member of the Kwakwala speaking people. In addition, I was trained as an oral genealogist from a very young age. My art practice generally carries with it a responsibility to educate the larger world about my culture and the belief systems associated with being from the Mamalilikulla First Nation.
At the present time I am working in a political world. I sit as chairman of the Executive Board for the Kwakiutl District Council, which oversees work with eight of our Kwakwaka’wakw bands, six of which fall under health transfer. In addition, I am an elected councillor of the Mamalilikulla First Nation. I also sit as the chairman for the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness in Victoria and I am currently speaking with First Nations Health Authority to work in the capacity of Health benefits change champion for dental, vision and medical supplies roll out. All of this work is also motivated by my desire to bring about positive, healthy, growth and healing and to assist developing capacity for our First Nations people. In this way I hope to inspire through my work a gentle understanding of our people and the importance of connections and cooperation to enable of us to move forward with confidence and success.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge George Littlechild for motivating this body of work. I believe his words were something like this – ‘you are always speaking of your ancestors and nobody knows what they look like. You need to make their images real through your art’ …and so this journey began. — John Powell
I have watched John Powell’s journey through these incredible Honourings of his Ancestors – connecting the dots, the stories, moieties and his family standings within the Kwakwaka’wakw nation.
John is blessed to come from a strongly ranked seating position within the nation and he holds up these Ancestors with great esteem and pride. They are his tie, his connection to the land, sea and sky. His roots have informed him, nurtured him, allowed him to stand connected to the land and people of Village Island, where his people lived for thousands of years.
His gift to us is the body of art full of mystic mastery and brilliance. He has
captured his ancestry so beautifully. Each portrait bursts, evokes grand lineage and strength while his regalia / button blankets tie into today’s traditions as they are danced at Potlatches and gatherings. When needed, John has freely lent out the crests from his own dance order and that of his ancestors. He honours home, lineage and the stories that lie within, which he graciously has shared in this exhibition.
I am proud to have witnessed this body of art being conceived, created, born. I “Stand John Up” and am content to act as a cultural witness to his art-making practice that connects him to culture. I am very proud of you Winidi. — George Littlechild / Nanekawasis
1 Karen Cross & Julia Peck (2010) Editorial: Special Issue on Photography, Archive and Memory, Photographies, 3:2, 127-138, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499631 https://doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2010.499631
In a special issue of the online journal Photographies, Karen Cross and Julia Peck consider the intertwined relationship between past, present and future in which memory plays the important role of mediator within the intimate relationship between photographic image, archive and memory, proposing that memory can be seen as “the set of processes through which the past comes to us, but not just the uninterrupted transit of the past to the present. Memory is, in a sense, designed and shaped by the laws and practices of the present, which provide the structures for remembrance to take place.” John Powell lays out his personal and collective memories and interconnections, and in doing so invites us to consider our own relational pathways.