The Bill Reid Gallery sits unassumingly tucked in off the street. At first it’s a little elusive, but once you are up the set of stairs and find yourself in the carefully manicured courtyard, you understand immediately why this location was chosen. Although I had been here before, this was a little bit different. The last time I visited, it had been in broad daylight and I walked in as a tourist, paid the entrance fee and thoroughly enjoyed the art and artifacts on display. But tonight was different; this was a special event for the opening of Gwaii Haanas, a show celebrating the beauty of Haida Gwaii through photography and art.
As I walked up the steps that turned first one way and then another I felt my anticipation building. The light from inside, falling through the high windows onto the grass and the guests trickling through the door all in classy shades of black and grey, could almost fool you into believing you were in Paris or some other European centre of the arts. The fact that I was wearing jeans only magnified the the awe for me. Yes, I was sorely underdressed, but once I stopped worrying about it, I started to enjoy being a part of an experience that I had only daydreamed about. This was it; a true bonafide city art opening.
After we mingled a bit and met both CEO Alexandra Montgomery and Kwiaahwah Jones, the curator of the Gwaii Haanas exhibit, it was time to start the program. Although everyone spoke eloquently, the most powerful moment for me was the blessing of the replica bentwood box created by Gwaai Edenshaw and his brother Jaalen. The box was modelled after The Great Box from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford England. In a similar way, Bill Reid himself had done the same thing with a box he called The Final Exam from the Museum of Natural History in New York. Artist Beau Dick led the blessing with drumming and singing and invited Gwaai Edenshaw, as one of the artists, to join him in scattering eagle down into the box.
As the guests trickled out to their cars, the skytrain or their downtown condos, I reflected on the mix of people at the event. What struck me was that there was a high concentration of First Nations people in attendance. I think when I first noticed this was when I first started to feel at ease again. Moving to Vancouver has been somewhat of a culture shock and not for the reasons you would think. When I moved here I realized I had been so used to being a happy minority in a primarily First Nations community, that I felt something was missing when I walked around Vancouver without that same familiarity. I hadn’t really thought that by walking into an elite, invite only art opening in downtown Vancouver that I would find my way back home somehow. I had no idea that I would find a piece of my heart here. And I expect that’s exactly what the urban First Nations in the gallery that night were looking for as well. It felt special to have witnessed a coming together of tribes where the culture and way of life was being celebrated, where everyone was now looking to them to demonstrate respect and honour and holding up the art form as a true BC treasure. I look forward to discovering more pockets of celebration down here in the city, and finding a little piece of home at the same time.