Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: Serious Player

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. | Image: Farah Nosh 

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. | Image: Farah Nosh 

By Nancy Lanthier

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas's art takes many forms, including sculpture and painting, but he is best known as the creator of Haida Manga, a fusion of the Japanese graphic style with his Haida culture. His Haida Manga books, including Flight of the HummingbirdRed, and the upcoming War of the Blink pop with vibrancy, humour and arresting characters while addressing socially relevant issues. 

Yahgulanaas, 63, became a full-time artist only in his 40s. Before that, he was dedicated to social service and political activism, mostly to prevent logging on the territory of the Haida people. This experience informs his art, which has already by collected by the British Museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum and Vancouver Art Gallery. 

Most recently, the Bowen Island-based artist has enjoyed several large-scale public art commissions. His newest piece, soon to be installed in Richmond, joins public works near Vancouver International Airport, at UBC, Kensington Park (one of the largest public art works in the country at 42 metres), and elsewhere.

Yahgulanaas's sculpture, Gartered, which is part of his Coppers from the Hood series of shields created from car hoods, is included of the exhibition Unceded Tradition, Unceded Territories, opening July 26, at Queen Elizabeth Theatre.   

We recently emailed Yahgulanaas a hefty list of questions, which he gamely answered. 

Graphic novel  Red: A Haida Manga , by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Graphic novel Red: A Haida Manga, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

How did you get your start as an artist? As a refugee from decades of community activism and realizing that if art was to be part of my active life, the time was now.

What most appeals to you about the work do? The surprise.

What do you look for in a work of art? A respectful space for the observer.

What is one of the most moving works of art you’ve seen recently? Playground of the Gods on Burnaby Mountain.

What does your perfect day look like? Aren't they all perfect?

What is your advice to young artists in the early stages of their careers? Treat every artistic creation like a precious note to your future selves. 

During your residency at the American Museum of Natural History and after your talk at TEDxVancouver, you facilitated large-scale group murals that each had more than 1,000 contributors. What drives you to do this? The observer that becomes a participant will save the world.

Tell us about the first time a work of art moved, inspired or affected you. The first time I saw Kabuki theatre, some God pushed a finger inside my brain and swirled around an intoxicating recipe of possibilities. 

It’s Saturday night. How are you most likely to spend it? Great southeast winds and rains spill through the forests and beaches of this Pacific island. My spouse, our daughter and I sit together.

You excel at conflict resolution. What is it that makes you an excellent leader in this regard? I don't feel like any thing approaching an expert. Bugs know more than I do. However, I believe there are more angels than demons in this world.

Best advice you’ve been given? Do things that others need done.

If you could invite anyone from the past or present to dinner, who would you like to have and what would you serve? I would invite my much younger self and ask, "really?"

You get three words to describe yourself — what are they? Sideways thinking.

What is your biggest dream? Safe world for children.

What is the most important issue facing the arts and culture sector today? Challenging the creeping intrusion of a hopeless, violent and assaultive world view. 

Biggest accomplishment? Organ donor.

If you change one thing in the world, what would it be? Stop hating things.

Your acclaimed books merge Haida and Japanese art practices. What inspired this art form? Japan was a refuge for my Haida ancestors when Canada was unsafe. I want to say thank you. 

Pet peeve? Nationalism based on disrespect of others.

2012-03-03, mixed media on paper, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

2012-03-03, mixed media on paper, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Please describe your work in Unceded Traditions. A set of copper covered Tercel car hoods are joined together to create a vulva shape. A curved steel ribbon rises up in the centre field. Willing hands are welcomed to gently pull back the ribbon and create a little rumble. This piece, Gartered, is from a series called Coppers from the Hood. A concurrent exhibit of another Hood is taking place at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art (NYC). That Hood sits in comfortable conversation with Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #370. The series is also represented in the permanent collection of the British Museum.

SEI, stainless steel on a granite and marble plinth at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, Vancouver Airport. | Image: McArthurGlen Vancouver / Facebook

SEI, stainless steel on a granite and marble plinth at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, Vancouver Airport. | Image: McArthurGlen Vancouver / Facebook

What art the three main reasons you create art? 1) I seek to create work that frames an opening, a passageway for those looking for a more honest, emotional and human connection to Indigenous Peoples. 2) The belief that art welcomes a complex set of signs. My "play" is that, while society's diversity and complexity accentuates the challenges of rejecting simplistic and dehumanizing characteristics of the "other," such a dialogue is essential to the survival of our species. We have witnessed a historical path built on a fatal idea that there is one way, one answer and one solution. Biocultural diversity presents many pathways out of that dead end. 3) Joyful immersion in a process that at times is beyond managing and controlling. 

What do you most look forward to? There are a few futures I am anticipating: 1) I hope to create pieces that potently resonate with observers who may not have foreknowledge of classic iconography and social theory that surrounds Canada's difficult ideology. 2) As many of my pieces and series done to date feel like planning exercises, the future remains filled with undiluted potential. 

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