The exhibition Canoe features historical works by artists including Frances Anne Hopkins, Cornelius Krieghoff, David Milne, Lucius O’Brien and others. These paintings are presented alongside contemporary works, including a dugout canoe by Klehwetua Rodney Sayers, to explore the arc of tradition, colonization, appreciation, recovery and inventiveness that has articulated the movement of the vessel through history and into the present and beyond.
Sayers is a Hupacasath artist from Ahswinis, Port Alberni, British Columbia. He is a descendent of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, one of the coastal Indigenous communities that has been making dugout canoes for millennia.
For the exhibition, he meticulously built a dugout canoe by hand, and then had it painted at a specialist auto body shop. Sayers’ work often melds long-established forms with contemporary and even futuristic aesthetics. In so doing, he emphasizes the ingenuity of Indigenous cultural practices by indicating their inclination for evolution into new forms, new techniques and new ideas.
We spoke with Sayers about his creative process behind his work on view at Remai Modern.
“Xʷa xʷašqi čiƛuusaḥ is my homage to the Nuu-chah-nulth ´pin´waał. It is also embodies different facets of my work that address the evolution of traditional materials, sustainability, popular culture and hot rodding.”Klehwetua Rodney Sayers
What is the inspiration for the piece Xʷa xʷašqi čiƛuusaḥ?
The original idea for Xʷa xʷašqi čiƛuusaḥ came many years ago when I was admiring a wood-stripped kayak and a wood-stripped canoe made by my friend Lee. The discussion turned to the idea of building a canoe using the stripping method, but fashioning it after the hull of a Nuu-chah-nulth ocean-going dugout canoe. If there was any inspiration, it was from studying the hull of many dugout canoes, and watching them move through the water. I was very taken by the elegant sculptural qualities of these objects, and their historical significance. The Old people used to say “The Water was our Highway”, because we travelled everywhere by canoe.
Describe the experience of creating the canoe.
It was a very contemplative and introspective endeavour.
What were the biggest challenges in creating this work?
The biggest challenge in building this canoe turned out to be sourcing the red cedar planks I needed to make the strips. Ideally, I needed two boards that were 2 inches thick, 12 inches wide and 20 feet long, that had even horizontal grain, and were without flaws or knots. After weeks of searching, I contacted a timber broker that I know, and he had a commercial mill custom cut the planks I required.
What was the most enjoyable part of the experience?
Learning a new process was a very enjoyable part of this project. I had never built a canoe before, and many of the steps, processes, and materials were new to me, and this required all of my hand skills and researching abilities to complete each of the many steps.
Why did you create this particular style of canoe?
This style of canoe is modelled after a ´pin´waał , an ocean-going whaling canoe. I chose this style because of its sculptural qualities, and I wanted to pay homage to the canoes of the past and the ancestors who made them, to acknowledge the amazing accomplishment of creating such a craft.
How does this work relate to your practice overall?
This work is my ongoing investigation into the visual language of form, the language of materials and the influence of oral tradition and popular culture on my art practice. Our history is a living history, it evolves and changes, but is informed by, and remains true to its origins.
Why did you choose to incorporate auto body paint into the work?
Xʷa xʷašqi čiƛuusaḥ crossed over, and flowed into a body of work that I have been working on for many years, the “Hot Rod” series. When I was young, there were many street rods and sports cars in my town. I was fascinated with the attention to detail in their appearance. Mostly I was taken by how they were painted, every colour imaginable with racing stripes, flame licks and metallic paint finishes. I began incorporating this aesthetic into the paddles I was making, so began the “Hot Rod Paddle” series, which is ongoing. Originally I intended to finish the canoe with a flame lick motif, but after studying the hull, I decided to focus on the sculptural form without the distraction of an intense paint finish. So, if you look at the hull closely, and the light is right, you can see the blue colour underneath the black top coat, and the fine metallic finish. It is subtle but cheeky, like the Stellar’s Jay it is named after.
Tell us the story of your first time paddling the canoe before it arrived at Remai Modern.
The canoe was introduced to the Suumaʔas river in January of this year. This river is where canoes have been paddled ʔiikḥmuut, since time immemorial. It was done in a quiet way with a small group of witnesses called upon to record and retell the history of the launching. I sang the canoe paddle song, we carried it to the river, and then it was carefully placed into the water. I paddled it out onto the river. It seems the tsunami that was created from the volcanic eruption in Tonga, was still effecting the flow of water in the tidal river, so it was not as easy as I thought. I paddled back to the dock, and my partner Emily joined me for a short paddle. We then carried the canoe back to my studio where we all feasted on sockeye salmon salad bannock sandwiches.
What else should people know about the work?
One of the central ideas about this canoe revolves around the idea of sustainability. As I observed how our Old Growth Forests became more and more precious, I wanted to find a way to conserve the red cedar material, while continuing the tradition of canoe making. As I mentioned earlier, this canoe used two pieces of red cedar to strip the hull, and the wood used to build the gunwales, stems and seats were used sparingly. There is fibre glass cloth and epoxy resin used to give strength to the hull structure, but this is the trade off to reduce the amount of cedar that is used. So in the big picture, very little wood was used to create this water craft.
Canoe is on view at Remai Modern until May 8 in Remai Modern’s free Connect Gallery.