Memory. History. Story.

A walk through North Vancouver’s newest art exhibit, celebrating Indigenous culture

Natasha Jones // Contributor
Image: Ambleside Park Swa’y’wi’ by Xwalacktun

This year, the Gordon Smith Gallery presents Memory. History. Story., a celebration of Indigenous tradition and culture, working to support teachers in the indigenization of the curriculum, through which they explore the First People’s Principles of Learning. This overall echoes a holistic and respectful approach to the learning experience.

The exhibit showcases various forms of artwork of Aboriginal and Inuit artists, including George Littlechild, Jane Ash Poitras, Xwalacktun, Kenojuak Ashevak, Robert Davidson and Beau Dick, among others. The works include paintings, weavings, textile, sculpture and carvings, along with unique stories backing each work, from the Arts for Kids (AFK) permanent collection. Together, these pieces belong to a collection of stories, each expressing a range of emotions through different mediums.

Some pieces depict peaceful landscapes and highlight the harmonious connection that Indigenous communities had with the natural world, while other works capture much more distressing experiences such as the memories of those in residential schools.

One of the many aspects that make Indigenous artwork so special and significant is the traditional, organic processes in which the art is created – much of the artwork incorporates natural elements such as wood or soapstone. The textile pieces, each intricate and unique, were handmade and by looking at them, viewers can get a sense of the amount of time and care put into each item.

When entering the gallery, the first thing that catches the eye is a large, elaborate cedar carving, also known as a welcome pole, crafted by artist Darren Yelton. Traditionally, these works have been placed in front of First Nation longhouses as a sign of welcome.

Across from the pole, a wall displays a diverse range of masks in all sorts of sizes, shapes and colours, symbolizing various spirits. As a part of Indigenous culture, these masks assumed their roles during earlier theatrical performances that retold stories. Naturalistic elements played a role in the creation of these works through the use of traditional materials, including caribou and horse hair.

Aside from earlier works, the exhibit also features the work of many contemporary artists. Though differing in style, the more modernistic pieces examine similar themes – identity being one of them. Beyond the brush strokes lies a voice of the past, and the paintings run heavy with emotion, as if they speak on behalf of the artists’ ancestors – those that were unable to express their feelings and heritage, in a time of colonizing government-enforced policies such as the Indian Act.

Patricia Singer, an Art History professor at Capilano University specializing in textiles, finds herself fascinated with the way in which past traditions play into modern culture. Traditional pieces like intricate weavings are not limited to the walls of art galleries and museums. She notes that such works of art are presented in other places as well, like the Vancouver airport. “One of the first things you see is the 20-foot Salish weavings,” she said. “The designs are colourful, distinctive and eye-catching.” She also notes that apart from being pleasing to the eye, these weavings remind us that we sit on the traditional and ancestral territory of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Lil’wat and Sechelt Nations.

Textiles have been around for 40,000 years and are not merely body coverings, but in fact, wearable works of art. Singer describes fashion as being our “second skin.” Much like body language, fashion is a form of communication, which can be a very powerful tool.

In the past 30 years, there has been a revival of Indigenous artwork, however, traditional artwork and textiles have not always been celebrated. In the Pacific Northwest during the 50s and 60s, traditional works of art were at an all-time low, but now, “young Indigenous people are interested in making traditional blankets which is a means of announcing identity,” said Singer, noting that artwork often causes her to think about her own identity and heritage.

Singer added that art is successful at telling stories, serving many cultural purposes, especially “when you want to tell a narrative that speaks to everybody.” She also noted that universal art forms such as art or music are great forms of communication, as they are timeless, therefore remaining relevant and preserving history and culture for present-day viewers and generations to come.

Memory. History. Story. will be running until April 28 at the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, at 2121 Lonsdale in North Vancouver. Admission is by donation. For further information on the exhibit and to read about upcoming exhibits visit

Singer calls those interested in the Humanities to take the newly announced Art History course, “Fabric and Society,” (AHIS 260). This course examines the role of textiles within society and explores the way fashion allows us to communicate.

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