Bill Reid & The Haida Canoe – A New Exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery

Lootaas in Paris P20, 1989. Photo © Philip Hersee Photography. On display at the Bill Reid Gallery.

Western art starts with the figure—West Coast Indian art starts with the canoe.
– Bill Reid

Born in Victoria, B.C., to a Swiss-German father and a Haida mother, Bill Reid (1920 – 1998) became, over the course of his lifetime, one of Canada’s most important and well-known artists. His work in traditional Haida materials—as a goldsmith, carver, sculptor and canoe maker—brought unprecedented world-wide attention to West Coast First Nations art. Many of Bill Reid’s most famous pieces reside here in Vancouver, including Raven and The First Men at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (an image of which can be seen on the back of every $20 Canadian bill) and the bronze Killer Whale – Cheif of the Undersea World at the Vancouver Aquarium.

A new exhibition at Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art presents a never-before-seen look at one of Bill Reid’s greatest endeavors: the creation of the Lootass (Wave Eater), a 51-foot-long Haida canoe that traveled both 950 km along the B.C. coast to Haida Gwaii and up the Seine River in Paris in 1989.

Lootaas (Wave Eater), 1993. Ink Drawing by Bill Reid. On display at the Bill Reid Gallery.

Through photographs, videos and drawings, the exhibition, titled Bill Reid & the Haida Canoe, gives visitors insight into “the canoe as art, as a symbol of identity and community, and as a metaphor for Reid’s creative journey.” It demonstrates how important the Lootass was, both to Reid himself and to the Haida nation, as well as to today’s resurgent interest in canoes as an art form and as an archetypal icon of Northwest Coast culture.

The exhibition centres around the vivid works of renowned photographers Robert Semeniuk and Philip Hersee, who documented the creation of the Lootass and its groundbreaking journey through Paris.

Semeniuk, an award-winning photojournalist whose storied career includes living with the Inuit for two years on assignment for National Geographic Magazine as well as stints in a dozen war zones, spent 1986 living with Bill Reid in Skidegate (in Haida Gwaii), where the Lootass was carved from an 800-year-old red cedar log. Works of art in-and-of themselves, Semeniuk’s black-and-white photographs are simultaneously ethereal and masculine, poetically capturing the hard physical labor of the task as well as revealing the undaunted spirit of Reid and his team of Haida craftsmen.

The Steaming of Lootaas,1985. Photo © Robert Semeniuk. On display at the Bill Reid Gallery.

For Philip Hersee—an acclaimed professional photographer who was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in 1982— photographing the Lootass and its Haida paddlers in Paris was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he refused to miss. At the time (1989), Hersee was working as a photographer on the TV show MacGyver; he didn’t know Bill Reid personally, but when he read about the Lootass‘ trip to Paris—the first time a living Canadian First Nations artist would be feted in Europe—he packed his bags.  As Hersee recalls, “I just knew I had to go and record it. It was too valuable [to miss].”

Lootaas in Paris P19, 1989. Photo © Philip Hersee Photography. On display at the Bill Reid Gallery.

Hersee met Reid in Paris and—after passing a “test” by reading a book of poems Reid gave him—joined the Lootass and its Haida crew. His colour photographs of the Lootass in France capture not only the intense joy and energy of the crew, but many of the journey’s most historic moments, including meetings between Bill Reid and world-famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and then-Mayor of Paris (later President of France) Jacques Chirac.

Philip Hersee beside his photograph of Bill Reid and Claude Levi-Strauss, at the opening reception for Bill Reid & the Haida Canoe at the Bill Reid Gallery. Photo: Dana Lynch

Bill Reid is such an important figure in Canadian art, in world art, and particularly in Vancouver art that this exhibit is a must-see. Of course, Bill Reid & the Haida Canoe is just one of the many reasons to visit  Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery. Along with a diverse permanent collection of Bill Reid works, the Gallery showcases stunning gold and silver jewelry, monumental sculptures, and a towering totem pole by James Hart of Haida Gwaii.

Bill Reid & the Haida Canoe runs from June 22, 2011 – January 8, 2012 at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Dr. Martine Reid, the exhibition curator, is also writing a book about the Lootass, which will include photographs by Robert Semeniuk and Philip Hersee; it’s expected to be published around December 2011.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed for this post

2 Responses to Bill Reid & The Haida Canoe – A New Exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery

  1. Proud to have played a part in capturing the Hadia and bill
    Reids visit to Paris ,in 1989.

    the show les Americas by Claude Levi Straus was a once in a life time opportunity ,

    Signifying the return of the art of the Haida returning to Europe that had not happened for the last 1500 yrs

  2. Pingback: Over The Moon Excited - My Life In A Canoe Continues... | CAMP