Explore Indigenous Art – Robert Davidson

June 21, 2021

Robert Davidson

Haida and Northwest Coast art originates from nature. The more I see natural shapes, the more I realise the art form came from there.


I’m named after my grandfather and my English name is Robert Davidson, but our surname is only three generations old. Before that, we all used our Haida names. Mine is G̲uud San Glans which translates to ‘Eagle of the Dawn’. 


Our spirit lives in the forest and whenever I’m under the canopy I feel rejuvenated. We are all responsible for maintaining nature and also being a little more careful in how we treat it. We need to be a lot more mindful with how we continually rape the land. There’s so much tied up in the dollar sign, and our natural surroundings are the victim. With the Covid pandemic, nature pushed the pause button. We’re destroying our environment at an insane, rampant pace, so I’m relieved that she does have a mind. Now it’s up to us to pay attention to her lesson.


Creativity stems from the inner world, it doesn’t come from outside. When I’m out in nature and see a killer whale finning, that becomes my experience. We all have a memory bank, so when I go to draw the killer whale, I imagine that time I saw it in the wild. That’s true with all animals and all life. 


My dad started me out carving when I was thirteen and I’ve never looked back. I spent a year and a half in Bill Reid’s studio where he coached me on my projects. I didn’t really apprentice with him as I wasn’t working on his work, I was making my own, but he taught me what to look for. 


Northwest Coast art is very much like a language with two alphabets – the ovoid shape and u-shape. Once you learn the principles of these two shapes you can create almost anything and any image within any given space. Knowing what to express used to be a challenge. I felt that the old masters were only creating images, but as I gained more insight into the art form, I started to realise I was expressing myself through my work. It did take me a while to recognise this though, because the art is so abstract. 


For example, because we were under the Indian Act and our lives were governed by the government of Canada, I created a totem pole called, ‘We Were Once Silenced’. The last totem pole I carved is, ‘Beyond Being Silenced’. It’s a statement for us and also for the world, that we want to be part of society. 


The laws were designed for us to be exterminated, as proved with the recent discovery of 215 children’s bodies. I choose not to dwell on it. I choose to find solutions so we can move through it, not around it. ‘Beyond Being Silenced’ is really about how now we have our voice, how do we want to express ourselves without filling our dialogue with anger? Now that we have this platform, we need to walk carefully and find solutions. We’ve been pushed down for many generations and it’s going to take us a while to create a new reality. I’d rather we adopt some of the values of our ancestors by being self-reliant and self-governing. There are many good people taking the lead now and that’s very exciting for me.




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