It was while visiting the First Peoples Gallery at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria that Stephen Foster first encountered the work of early 20th century photographer/ethnologist Edward Sheriff Curtis.
Amongst the Haida argillite carvings done by his ancestors, the totems and ancient artifacts, Foster was drawn to a film that was shot in the northern part of Vancouver Island in the early 1900s.
That film was Curtis’ In the Land of the Head Hunters, which showed a rather savage looking bunch of Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw).
“I first saw it in segments at the museum, then had to look hard to get an original copy of the film,” said Foster. “It was a European film with characters from Northern Vancouver Island playing the roles.”
A video and electronic media artist and associate professor in the faculty of creative and critical studies at UBC Okanagan, Foster decided to do what Curtis had done before him. He created his own version of the film and images, resulting in the multi-part installation, Re-Mediating Curtis.
The first part, Toy Portraits, showed 3D photos of dolls re-made in the Indian likeness developed by Curtis at the Kelowna Art Gallery this summer.
The second part, a Canada Council of the Arts funded video installation, entitled Re-Mediating Curtis: Remix, opens at the Vernon Public Art Gallery Thursday.
“I have remixed the film and am allowing the audience to remix it,” said Foster about his interactive video and audio installation.
“In the original film (Curtis) created an entire village set on Deer Island off Vancouver Island near Prince Rupert. For the main part of my installation, I have recreated the set in 3D, in a way of romanticizing the vision.”
In the Land of the Head Hunters, according to Curtis’ 1915 book of the same name, was to “give a glimpse of the primitive Americans as they lived in the Stone Age and as they still were living when explorers touched the shores of the Pacific between 1774 and 1791.”
According to documents, Curtis paid the Kwakiutl men in the film 50 cents each to shave off their facial hair and don wigs and clip-on nose rings to resemble their pre-European contact ancestors.
“Curtis was trying to strive for an authentic picture of Indianess, a romantic version of Indianess. If they didn’t look Indian enough, he shoe polished their skin or made them wear wigs to cover their short hair. He wasn’t showing them with their button blankets. He showed them as they were living in the past. He showed their culture as primitive and dead. The focal point was on how these people were, although it was completely his imagination. The people were aware he was creating images, but it became ubiquitous.”
Part of a bigger project, a 20-volume book called The North American Indian, Curtis’ In the Land of the Head Hunters opened in New York in 1914 to critical acclaim but financial failure. Tossed away, it wasn’t until decades later that the film was re-edited and released as In the Land of the War Canoes.
“The newer edit of the film is a different kind of animal,” said Foster. “They re-framed it more as a documentary claiming it was something different, an appropriation of culture.”
In his later years, Curtis also worked on westerns with Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille.
“He advised on how the Indians should look. It’s that iconic image of the Indian as the western genre took off; that of the mobile savage.”
Foster’s own ancestry came to play on why he decided to re-mediate Curtis through his own art.
Originally from Lantzville on Vancouver Island, Foster is part Haida from his father’s side and also of European descent.
“My father’s family moved in the late 1800s from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver Island and my grandfather owned a clipper ship and helped ship coal from Nanaimo down to San Francisco and over to Europe,” he said.
Foster eventually left the island to pursue an undergraduate and graduate degree from York University in Toronto, and taught for eight years out east before coming back to B.C. in 2000, where he started teaching at Okanagan University College and later at UBC.
Foster’s other reason for re-mediating Curtis is how the film, and its later edited version, generate a stereotype of the indigenous people.
“There is something about it that’s not quite right. It’s a definite misrepresentation that gets misconstrued in popular culture,” said Foster pointing to more recent films such as Avatar, which shows the natives, in this case the Na’vi, as primitive and one with the environment in which they live.
With Re-Mediating Curtis: Remix about to open, Foster says he hopes to turn his findings into an even greater project.
“I hope to have it impact culturally rather then just the critical aspects and serve as a touchstone for indigenous people,” he said.
Showing alongside Foster’s installation will be a group exhibition by the Kama? Creative Aboriginal Arts Collective, a newly formed arts collective that has brought together 10 emerging and established First Nations artists who are members of the Okanagan Indian Band (Suknaqinx).
Entitled Transformations, the exhibition brings together traditional and contemporary works of art that contribute to the understanding of cultural values, identity, history, and contemporary issues of Okanagan First Nations.
The artworks in the exhibition are in the format of drawing, painting, photography, metal sculpture and buckskin.
Artists participating include Mariel Belanger, Val Chiba, Dean Louis, Sheldon Louis, Pierre Richard, Abby Marchand, Barbara Marchand, David Wilson, Vern Tronson, and Mona Tronson.
“We wish to thank Stephen Foster, Vernon’s Friendship Centre and the participating artists for their dedication to First Nations art in a contemporary format,” said VPAG executive director Dauna Kennedy Grant.
“We are also delighted to have received financial support from the Canada Council for the Arts to assist us in presenting Stephen Foster’s exhibition. This federal funding is a first for the Vernon Public Art Gallery and I commend our staff for producing the type of work that has enabled us to access these funds.”
The opening reception for both exhibitions takes place at the Vernon Public Art Gallery, 3228 31st Ave. Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibitions continue at the gallery until Dec. 23. Admission is by donation.