In the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, many in the audience of about 100 people let out an audible gasp of surprise.
Most were seated in the small exhibition area featuring numerous historic Indigenous Northwest Coast masks in display cases. In front of them, they were witnessing a performance to inaugurate a modern masterpiece: James Hart’s The Dance Screen (The Scream Too).
In the Haida tradition, an inauguration means the screen had to be danced by a team of dancers, singers and drummers.
The gasp came near the end of the performance Saturday evening when, from behind the red cedar screen, eagle down was blown through several holes in the screen and into the gallery.
It was a dramatic moment. The soft white down shot out horizontally and floated up and into the air between the screen and the audience. Suspended like little balls of fluff, the down momentarily created an atmosphere that united everyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, in the Haida spirit world.
The Dance Screen started out years ago as a commission for a plaque-sized work meant to fit on a wall in the cabin of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa. But as Hart kept working on the screen, it expanded into what has been recognized as a masterpiece of Northwest Coast art.
On the outside edges of the 4.75 m (15 ft) by 3.2 m (12 ft) screen, pairs of salmon swim up the left side, across the top (except for one swimming against the stream) and down the right. They’re marked with blue and silvery abalone shell that sparkle in the light.
Inside, on the main body of the screen, are numerous carved figures from the Haida world such as bear, killer whale, beaver, and raven that all depend on the salmon for their existence.
After thanking all the carvers who worked on the screen, Hart said that the many environmental threats to the life cycle of the salmon means it is up to humans to take responsibility to protect them. After all, he said, it’s only fair since the salmon have taken care of humans and animals on the northwest coast for thousands of years already.
“It is about the salmon and what it means,” Hart said about the meaning of the carvings on the screen. “We all have our part in co-existing and sharing this planet.”
During the performance, Hart wore sumptuous regalia borrowed from the National Gallery in Ottawa. At one point, his frontlet headpiece was filled with eagle down by a performer. As he danced and shook his head, it floated into the air in the gallery.
Since the Audain Art Museum opened two years ago, the screen has been on display with a shaman figure in front guarding a portal. For the inaugural dance, the shaman was removed and set to the side by Hart. That allowed dancers to open the portal and pass through the screen which marks the divide between two worlds: the spirit world behind and the human world in front.
The audience audibly responded when a dramatic spirit figure passed through the small portal and revealed himself as a male dancer wearing a long black bear skin. He was accompanied by a dancer in a traditional Haida bear mask.
Another dancer wore a spectacular transformation mask borrowed from the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. The dancer started with the mask closed as Raven which was accompanied by a snapping sound of his beak opening and closing. Raven then dramatically transformed into a human being when the mask was opened to reveal a face painted in traditional form lines and ovoids of the Northwest Coast.
During the performance, Hart honoured Audain for his outstanding support of visual arts and culture in B.C.
“I know him as a great man for all the work that he does,” Hart said. “We want you to put on some gear so you can dance a little bit.”
With that, Audain stepped up to the performance area and put on an eagle mask and regalia to dance briefly with Hart.
After the inaugural dance of the screen, a dinner catered by the Four Seasons was held in the museum’s Cressey Hall. Tickets for the performance and dinner were $1,200 a person. Funds raised benefit the Audain’s ongoing exhibitions and educational programs.
The $43.5 million museum, which opened in March, 2016, was paid for by Audain. The permanent collection, donated by Audain and Karasawa, is mostly comprised of art made in B.C. and includes 24 Emily Carr paintings as well as historical and contemporary Indigenous art works.
On May 1, Curtis Collins took over as the museum’s new director and chief curator. The next exhibition to open at the gallery is Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection on Saturday, Oct. 6.