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Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast

June 27 to September 20, 2009

When you think of traditional Northwest Coast art, you think of beautifully carved and painted totem poles, masks, bentwood boxes, canoes, and jewellery—decorated with traditional mythological creatures such as thunderbirds and sisiutls. What you don’t expect to see is a silver bracelet carved with the image of a raven flying away with a Starbucks cup, or a raven affixed to a wooden Celtic cross.

So why are First Nations artists taking traditional artistic forms and infusing them with modern cultural influences? Who are these artists? And what is it like to be a Northwest Coast artist in the twenty-first century? These are some of the important questions answered in Ian M. Thom’s stunning new book, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast. Co-published by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and Douglas & McIntyre, and published in the U.S.A. by University of Washington Press, this publication came to fruition as a result of the support of Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, a major supporter and advocate for First Nations art in British Columbia. After undergoing two years of extensive research on over forty artists, Thom, a former McMichael curator, explored the career, working methods, and philosophies of up-and-coming artists originating from Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakw a k a ’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and other First Nations tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast in his book.

Premiering at the McMichael on June 27, 2009, the exhibition, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast, brings this magnificent publication to life. It showcases a collection of over seventy pieces of contemporary art that are featured in the book and investigates how artists are drawing inspiration from history and grappling with the challenges of interpreting traditional design and transforming it into modern-day Northwest Coast art.

Organized by the McMichael and guest curated by Ian M. Thom, this exhibition has been financially assisted by the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, a program of the Government of Ontario through the Ministry of Culture, administered by the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund Corporation. The publication and accompanying curatorial research has been generously funded by the Audain Foundation. The exhibition closed at the McMichael on September 20, 2009.

Activities and Events PDF (153 KB)

Press Kit PDF (746 KB)

Globe and Mail article by Sarah Milroy

Exhibition Merchandise



Don Yeomans (Haida, b.1958)
Creator,  1985/2008
yellow cedar, acrylic
79.7 x 60.6 x 14.6 cm
Collection of the Artist
Photography by Trevor Mills

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