Mythmaker

Here’s an interesting Globe and Mail interview with poet Robert Bringhurst about the attacks on the reputation of his friend Bill Reid, Canada’s most famous native artist:

The most recent so-called insult to Reid’s reputation came from B.C. writer and art historian Maria Tippett in her book Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian. “Although not as profoundly dumb as the Maclean’s article, it really is astoundingly blind and deaf,” Bringhurst says.

Tippett pronounces Reid “a white man’s Indian,” who offered Canadians “a sanitized image of native society.” While never negating his talent or denying his role in elevating the “dignity, renown, and confidence of the Haida Nation” and native art in general, she questions his revered status as the “architect” of contemporary native art by showing that he was certainly not the first to combine western technology and themes with traditional ways of carving and seeing. She also proves quite successfully that native art of the Northwest Coast was not on the verge of extinction when Reid rose to fame.

Tippett’s book dedicates a lot of space to exploring Reid’s mixed-race heritage. Although Reid was perceived as an artist who had transcended racial typecasting, she shows that he spent much of life perplexed by his identity, often reinventing it and perpetuating his own myths to his social and commercial advantage. For example, although it is widely believed that Reid never knew about his native heritage until later in life, Tippet proves that he was well aware of his ancestry as a child, and recounts in detail (although not for the first time) his often critical and disparaging remarks about natives.

Bringhurst is appalled. Curiously enough, a similar sort of criticism has been levelled against him in the past. His book, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, published in 1999, received glowing reviews from critics across Canada, who hailed it as “astonishing” and “groundbreaking” for its poetic translations and success in salvaging Haida stories that had supposedly been languishing in archives. But many people from the Haida Nation were infuriated that Bringhurst had appropriated their spiritual stories and processed their language culture into something white folk could more easily digest.

Bringhurst doesn’t see the similarity. But he’s not the only one who’s upset by Tippett’s book, which one reviewer called “an assassination.” Others have said it is “a mean-spirited diatribe,” “so full of bile that she writes as if Reid contracted Parkinson’s Disease as some kind of marketing strategy.”

“She trivializes the man,” says Bringhurst, who agrees with other reviewers who have said the book is riddled with errors, most notably in the native spellings.

Tippett, whose biography of Emily Carr won a Governor-General’s Award, has written contentious books before. A biography of Frederick Varley was pulled from circulation at the behest of the late artist’s family. But nothing, she says, compares to the vitriolic damnation this book has received. Speaking by phone from Cambridge University, where she lives part-time, Tippett says she doesn’t understand the criticism. “I’m not Kitty Kelley,” she exclaims, referring to the writer of gossipy celebrity biographies. “I’m a scholar.” Destroying Reid’s reputation was never Tippett’s intention. “Look, Bill was a great artist, on a par with all the great artists of the last century. That’s a given. Why would I spend five years on him if he wasn’t?”

Here’s a slide-show of one of Reid’s sculptures, The Jade Canoe, which the Vancouver International Airport paid $3 million dollars for some years ago. It really is a gorgeous thing.

To attack Reid for “reinventing his identity” is particularly dim. Are there any wildly successful artists of the last century who didn’t make myths out of themselves?

(Thanks to Susan O. for the link.)


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