TLGAA K’AAYSGUUXAN SGAANAGWAS / THE SUPERNATURAL REALM
SGAAN TLAGÉE / LAND OF SUPERNATURAL BEINGS
GIDAHL-GUDSLLAAY / TERRI-LYNN WILLIAMS-DAVIDSON
September 29, 2021 – December 31,2021
THE HOPE OF THE SUPERNATURAL BEINGS
While I was growing up in Skidegate, my parents introduced me to some of the Supernatural Beings of Haida Gwaii. I was fascinated when my ancestors shared narratives and songs about them, and even more intrigued to hear that some ancestors had actually seen Supernatural Beings. I tried to visualize what they looked like and later learned that many Haida artists–from Charles Edenshaw to Robert Davidson and their contemporaries–have represented Supernatural Beings and crests in their masks, sculptures, paintings, songs, and oral narratives.
The more I studied and learned about Supernatural Beings, the more I appreciated their intimate connections to land and sea, as well as our interconnectedness. Through my work as a lawyer, I came to appreciate the extent of unsustainable natural resource extraction and the impact of such extraction upon the land and sea, the Supernatural Beings, and humanity. I began writing songs about the Supernatural Beings, but I could not escape my desire to visualize them. Photographs became a medium for this exploration, temporarily providing a detour from music recording, but ultimately helping to inspire music lyrics. My practice of law, music, art, and writing are all grounded in a desire to contribute to our understanding of humanity’s relationship with the land and sea. All four disciplines have become an exploration of Haida laws expressed through the Supernatural Beings and Crest Figures portrayed in this exhibition.
The art in this exhibition is novel and, therefore, somewhat risky. I assumed the risk and used my image as the basis for the Supernatural Beings. This decision limited the Supernatural Beings to those that are female, but it also opened the way for depictions of Crest Figures, including traditional face paintings belonging to my clan, the Gaagyals KiiGa-waay, also called the Skedans Ravens. As my husband, Robert Davidson, explains, the Haida word for mask is niijaang.uu, which translates literally as “to imitate.” He explains that in the context of dance, to imitate means to “bring to life” and to become each Being.¹ Equipped with the narratives my mother and others relayed, the written ethnographic record, and the power of visualization, I drew upon my experience as a Haida dancer to dramatize and bring to life the Supernatural Beings and Crests Figures.
Traditionally, the power of Supernatural Beings is contained in dress and adornment. Dress in Indigenous cultures is integral to dramatizing and bringing to life Supernatural Beings and Crest Figures. For instance, one Supernatural Being dons an actual rainbow as its dress to attend a potlatch. Haida people also bring out specific garments and masks² and dance them in potlatches, feasts, and other ceremonies to affirm rights to wear them. Every Haida clan has rights to specific crests, which are representations of animals or Supernatural Beings documenting the history of the clan from its origins through to contemporary times. Similarly, each clan also has rights to wear certain adornments to ceremonial clothing, such as the right to wear an eagle feather, to attach mica to the face, or to bear specific face paintings depicting the clan’s crests.
Most of the Beings in this exhibition are dressed in Indigenous fashion to affirm their contemporary existence; they are not confined to ceremony or to another time. Indigenous fashion is therefore a tool to help bring each Being out of concealment and into the full light of our consciousness and everyday life.
In addition to Indigenous fashion there are three other layers of art in each image. The first is the art of the principal photographers, art director, and image compositors who helped breathe life into my vision. The second is the art of mostly local photographers who provided plate images of specific locations referenced in the oral narratives, thereby reconnecting oral traditions to the land and sea. Third, almost all the images contain Robert Davidson’s art, to help draw connections to abstract representations of these Beings. His art is incorporated in a subliminal way so that the viewer is hopefully surprised to locate it when they do, but also so that each Being resonates on her own terms.
Sensitivity to the natural states of each Supernatural Being was necessary to bring them out into the open and into the human realm, because many Supernatural Beings are shy of humans. Even a wild and dramatic Being, like Gagiixiid, Wild Man, is shy, at first hiding his face before he enters public potlatches and feasts. In fact, glimpsing Supernatural Beings is a rare occurrence: they are said to be “tickled when people look at them.”³ Therefore, I sought to portray the Beings basking in the beauty of their surroundings, in unguarded, intimate moments of sensuality within Haida Gwaii.
Many narratives, and especially narratives about female Supernatural Beings, are inherently sensual and sexual. In traditional Haida culture, and in many Indigenous cultures, female power is intrinsic to healthy sexuality. Christianity suppressed Indigenous feminine power and sexuality. Despite the oppression of women throughout colonial history, my late mother, Mabel Williams, was never one to shy away from oral narratives that are inherently sexual. She openly shared them. I share the view that the suppression of sexuality throughout colonial history is related to violence against women. Violence against women is further related to the wanton destruction of the land and sea. Stated positively, our respect for the land and sea is intimately tied to our respect for women. I dearly hope that sharing these Supernatural Beings will contribute to the coming into being and continued growth of women who own and radiate their power in respectful balance with masculine power, and of men who respect women, thereby reducing violence against women.
These oral and visual narratives of Supernatural Beings strengthened my connections to Haida Gwaii. Transforming into Beings is a familiar process for Indigenous dancers, but the process of transformation for this project provided a unique exploration of the history and identity of Indigenous Peoples—the journey of women in particular—as well as an understanding of how the roots of tradition permeate contemporary life. Having worked with the Supernatural Beings intimately, I believe that if they could speak they would express hope that humanity will recognize the supernatural core of its existence, and the inextricable and fragile interdependencies between humans and the land and sea.
– Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson
1 Robert Davidson, personal communication, 2016.
2 In fact, artists often speak about “dressing” a mask, adding hair, feathers, and other adornments to complete the representation of the subject matter.
3 Walter McGregor, of the Sealion-Town-People, in John R. Swanton, Haida Texts and Myths: Skidegate Dialect, Bureau of American Ethnography, Bulletin 29 (Washington: GPO, 1905; repr., New York: Johnson Reprint
The Comox Valley Art Gallery is located upon the Unceded Traditional Territory of the K’ómoks First Nation. CVAG recognizes the enduring presence of First Nations people on this land. CVAG is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with artists, guest curators, writers, cultural advisors, community partners, our volunteers, donors + members. CVAG’s convergent programming is made possible through the support of our funders: Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, Government of Canada, Province of BC, City of Courtenay, Town of Comox, Village of Cumberland, Comox Valley Regional District, BC Gaming / local support: ABC Printing, SD71 Print Shop, Sherwin-Williams Paint Store, Muir Engineering Ltd., Izco Technology Solutions, Cumberland Village Works / community collaborators + co-presenters: Community Justice Centre, Sid Williams Theatre Society, School District 71 Indigenous Education.
Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson ravencalling.ca
Comox Valley Community Justice Centre communityjusticecentre.ca
SD71 Indigenous Education indigenouseducation.comoxvalleyschool.ca
Sid Williams Theatre Society sidwilliamstheatre.com
In collaboration with CVAG’s community partners the work of Terri-Lynn Williams Davidson is presented through exhibition, cultural sharing and teachings, lectures, and music.
29 SEPT – 31 DEC / SOLO EXHIBITON CVAG
12+13 OCT / SD71 CULTURAL SHARING
13 OCT / COMMUNITY JUSTICE CENTRE DINNER
14 OCT / CAMPAGNOLO 10TH ANNIVERSARY LECTURE
15 OCT / CVAG EXHIBITION PUBLIC OPENING + ARTIST TALK
16 OCT / SGAANGWA CONCERT AT SID WILLIAMS THEATRE
Terri-Lynn is a musician, author, activist, artist, and lawyer who has dedicated herself to the continuation of Haida language and culture. Born in Haida Gwaii, Terri-Lynn has been a promoter of Haida music and language since the age of 13, when she was drawn to the songs her centenarian great-grandmother and grandmother sang.