Haida Art - Mapping an Ancient Language

April 29 to October 22, 2006

Photograph of the exhibition: Haida Art: Mapping an Ancient Language; A Visual GrammarPrint

A Visual Grammar

Over thousands of years, distinctive art styles developed along the Northwest Coast. The peoples of the northern region-comprising the Haida and their mainland neighbours, the Tlingit to the north and Tsimshian to the east-shared a highly sophisticated style of graphic representation. This formline design system can be compared to a formal language based on a kind of visual grammar. True masters of the art adhere to the "rules" while also achieving endless variations and surprising innovations.

The Formline Design System

The design principles underlying the northern style were named by Bill Holm, an artist and art historian, in a landmark 1965 book, Northwest Coast Art: An Analysis of Form. The system is founded on the principle that creatures can be represented by delineating their body parts and details with varyingly broad formlines that always join to create an uninterrupted grid over the designed area. Holm identified two additional design units-the ovoid and the U-form-as building blocks of compositions.

The formline system was first and foremost a painted art. An artist's equipment included sets of different-sized templates of ovoids and U-forms that were traced onto the design field without prior sketches. A great deal of painting was also done freehand. The colours used were the typical black and red, sometimes complemented by green or blue. Holm concluded that when making a three-dimensional object such as a bowl, a spoon handle or a totem pole, the artist first conceived of the design in two dimensions and then mentally "wrapped" it around the three-dimensional surface before carving it out in relief.

Stretching the Alphabet

Robert Davidson has developed his own way of describing the visual grammar of Haida art. He sees the ovoid and U-form shapes as the components of an alphabet that can be stretched, pulled, rendered as positives or negatives, and otherwise manipulated with endless possibilities, within a specific framework of understanding. Davidson views the formline as the skeleton of the composition, within which energy fields can be directed by creating and balancing positive and negative spaces.

Davidson's awareness of space-either defined within a shape or surrounding one-extends beyond purely formal concerns to the cultural and ceremonial space within which the composition has meaning. For although today we rely on written words to define the components of this artistic tradition, no historic word for "art" or for "formline" has been found in the Haida language. Within this oral society, artists composed images and communicated ideas: art was performed.

This section was produced thanks to the generous collaboration of our donors. We would like to thank all the partner institutions involved with this project; as well as those who loaned or donated objects, photographs or archival documents for this exhibition. Haida Art - Mapping an Ancient Language