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Body Language exhibit at Red Deer museum: When tattoos are more than just decoration

The travelling exhibit runs until Sept. 30
‘Chilkat Allover 2017 Burke Museum, Seattle Washington, Tattoo on Nahaan by Corey Bulpitt.’ (Photo by Dion Kaszas in the Body Language exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery)p

Tattoo culture is alive and well in Central Alberta with people young and old decorating their bodies with personalized images, from the comic to the profound.

On the Canadian West Coast, tattoo culture is also making a resurgence. But among coastal First Nations people, permanent body art is considered a direct link to family and ancestry.

As Dion Kaszas of the Nlaka’pamux Nation puts it, tattooing is “a form of written language, a vehicle to communicate history, relationships, status, power and position in the cosmos or society.”

Animal tattoos are part of the storytelling tradition of West Coast societies and are considered a sacred, ceremonial rite. The practice “transcend(s) mere decoration to provide healing, protection and a profound sense of cultural knowledge and belonging,” states Kaszas, in the latest exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.

As guest curator of Body Language: The Reawakening of Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, Kaszas explains on a museum panel: ”They are a permanent reminder that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.”

‘Dean Hunt- Tattooing the World Heiltsuk, 2017. (photo by Dion Kaszas in the Body Language exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery)
‘Dean Hunt- Tattooing the World Heiltsuk, 2017. (photo by Dion Kaszas in the Body Language exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery)

The new travelling exhibit was brought here from the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver to provide some food for thought. Exhibitions coordinator Kim Verrier hopes to start some local discussions about the “grey lines” in the argument about cultural appropriation.

Although most of us would probably agree that it’s wrong for someone to make a buck by exploiting the symbols and art of another culture — the use of Inuit symbols on fashion runways is a blatant example — some would see nothing wrong with, say, inking a Haida thunderbird onto their shoulder.

But the five artists, whose works are highlighted in this exhibit, take exception to this. They believe that people should not use weighty symbols of another culture without knowledge of their history, meaning and significance.

Wearing these tattoos for cool effect is particularly galling to them since First Nations people were prohibited from wearing these tattoos, themselves, from 1885 to 1951.

The Indigenous practice was officially banned in this country in an amendment to the federal Indian Act — the same policy that made potlatches illegal. Both traditions were seen as anti-Christian signs of paganism that had to be stamped out, like all other aspects of Indigenous culture and tradition.

The five artists featured in this exhibit —Corey Bulpitt (Haida), Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk), Dion Kaszas (Nlaka’pamux), Nahaan (Tlingit) and Nakkita Trimble (Nisga’a)— show examples of their work, and how they do it, in photographs.

Traditional tattooing methods include tattoo stitching in which an inked thread is passed under the skin. Hundreds of stitches are used to form abstracted images of animals, lightning bolts, and nature scenes. The artists are inspired by stories and legends, as well as petroglyphs (drawings left on rocks), and patterns on traditional clothing.

“We believe you are open to the spirit world when being tattooed and that you must protect your spirit in that ceremony,” says Trimble on a museum panel.

There’s also a display of traditional tattooing tools, some paintings and carvings created by the artists, and a video in which they explain their interest in cultural tattoos.

“From the few threads of my culture that remain, I work as a cultural tattoo practitioner to stitch myself back together so that I can fulfill responsibilities to the people… the threads we are using today come from the knowledge and wisdom that we have inherited from our ancestors,” says Kaszas.

In the hallway gallery, printed artworks from two West Coast First Nations families, the Hunts and the Davidsons are displayed. These prints are part of the Red Deer museum’s collection because of a donation from local collectors Tom and Joan Chapman.

Body Language continues to Sept. 30. A virtual curator’s talk will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 24.

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Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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