I am so excited about an upcoming exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery. I was so excited that when I saw an event about it on Facebook I actually reached out to their PR team to ask if I could share the news about the event with you all. I’m going to be attending with my son and I hope you do too.

What’s happening?

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art is going to be presenting the Canadian premiere exhibition of Keeping the Song Alive from November 2, 2022 to March 19, 2023. It’s an exhibit that was guest curated by Cheryl Kaka‘solas Wadhams and co-developed with the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC. The exhibit shares a mostly unknown story – one I had personally never heard of – which was a decades-long collaboration between ethnomusicologist Dr. Ida Halpern and the late Kwakwaka’wakw Chiefs Billy Assu and Mungo Martin. They were working together to document hundreds of sacred and traditional songs. The Potlatch Ban and suppression of my community’s culture threatened these cultural expressions and I think it’s awesome they undertook this work to protect it.

“Through a rich mix of traditional music and regalia, contemporary art, film, and historical documentation, Keeping the Song Alive celebrates a unique friendship, the spiritual power of music, and the beauty of preserving ceremonial art and culture for future generations. For Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, songs are an essential part of cultural knowledge and ceremonial life, part of the rights and privileges of Chiefs that strengthen identity and lineage. The Big House is a place of belonging where songs, language, drumming, and dancing come together, and where the next generation is continuing these traditions in a good way.”

Bill Reid Gallery

How did this all come together?

I was a bit curious about how this collaboration came together but the guest curator explains the connection.

“As a Jewish immigrant fleeing the Holocaust, Dr. Ida Halpern understood the impact of cultural erasure,” says Wadhams. “Assu and Martin trusted her as an ally to preserve and record songs fundamental to the Kwakwaka’wakw culture that would have been lost forever due to the Potlatch Ban. Decades later, they couldn’t have imagined how enduring and profound their collaboration would be. This exhibition reflects on the tremendous impacts of the Potlatch Ban, residential schools, and the Indian Act, and showcases the significant works by contemporary artists that have been inspired by these recordings.”

What’s going to be part of the exhibition?

I understand it will include the original audio recorder, records, research notes, and Dr. Halpern’s photos of her career as an ethnomusicologist in Canada, following her escape from Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Alongside these items will be contributions from contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artists responding to the history and meaning of these recordings.

These expressions include:

  • Ellipsis, an installation of 137 copper LPs critiquing the ongoing oppression of the Indian Act, was created by Sonny Assu, the great great grandson of Chief Billy Assu.
  • Concealment, by Andy Everson, combines a kitchen table tea party with potlatch imagery, which recalls a time when his family had to hide their ceremonial activity.
  • A historic headdress by Chief Robert Harris
  • A ceremonial robe, apron, and headdress by artist and community leader Maxine Matilpi

I’m a big fan of Andy Everson’s work so I’m looking forward to seeing that installation in particular. I recently got a dress he designed from Totem Design House and his artistic expression is something I’ve always admired.

What will the experience include?

Visitors will have the chance to listen to a selection of the songs recorded with Chiefs Mungo Martin and Billy Assu in the 1950s. Several films by renowned ‘Na̱mǥis Filmmaker Barb Cranmer will immerse viewers in the potlatch experience, bringing together songs, dances and drumming in traditional ceremony. A replica potlatch drum log can also be played by visitors. Finally, the exhibition presents important conversations with a new generation of artists and community members who have been able to reconnect with their culture and heritage because of Halpern, Assu, and Martin’s collective work.

Bill Reid Gallery

I’m excited about this because I read about how my great great grandfather taught my grandpa to dance with a hollow log as a drum and I want to see what that looked like. I went to my first potlatch recently and it was a transformative experience.

Why is this historically significant?

Kwakwaka’wakw communities continue to work to regain traditional knowledge about the ceremonies that were lost due to colonization. Halpern’s recordings, many completed when it was illegal for Indigenous peoples to practice their culture, are a critical part of this work, regaining one part of what has been lost. In 2017, Halpern’s recordings, which date back to 1947, were added to the UNESCO Canada Memory of the World register.

Bill Reid Gallery

During the Potlatch Ban, practicing our culture was illegal. That means the carvings of my great great grandfather, the majority of his artistic works, were illegal at the time of their creation. Continuing to practice culture despite the threat of prosecution, and Halpern’s efforts to document them, were important, subversive actions I greatly admire.

What’s next for the exhibit?

This is what the Gallery says about the future of the exhibit: “A series of artist talks, Kwakwaka’wakw dance and drum group performances, and hands-on workshops are being planned. In 2024, the exhibition will be remounted at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, BC.”

I went to the Cultural Centre back in June and it’s lovely. I’m so excited it will be installed there and can’t wait to see it there too one day.

Who is Involved in the Project?

This is the bio of the curator of the exhibit. I have family ties to the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation and I’m so excited to meet her at the event:

Cheryl Kaka‘solas Wadhams is a member of the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation with connections to the Maʼa̱mtagila, and Mama̱liliḵa̱la Tribes of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw Nation, a practicing artist, and also works as the Visitor Services and Gallery Shop Manager at the Bill Reid Gallery. She holds both a Degree in Aboriginal Studies and a Diploma in Small Business from Langara College, and her experience includes work with the BC Assembly of First Nations and Native Education College. Wadhams is an active member of the local Urban Kwakwaka’wakw Dance Group. She is a new Kwak’wala language learner and recently participated in the First Nations Endangered Language Program at UBC.

Event Details

Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art presents Keeping the Song Alive
Dates: November 2, 2022 – March 19, 2023
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm
Address: Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art
639 Hornby Street
Vancouver, BC V6C 2G3
Website: billreidgallery.ca

Images from the Exhibit:

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