West Coast artist sees, challenges academic bias

West Coast local Hjalmer Wenstob recently took third place honours in the CBC’s Indigenous Eyes photo competition.

The competition sought images capturing the youthful spirit of First Nations communities.

Wenstob’s award winning entry was a photo of his brother Timmy performing a raven dance in a raven mask Wenstob had carved for an interactive video project at UVic.

“They won it together,” said the boys’ mother, Jessie Masso. “Hjalmer won it on paper but Timmy and Hjalmer figure they won it together; they worked at it together, they won it together.”

Wenstob, a third-year UVic art student, was tasked with creating an interactive video piece for the classes’ yearend show and he immediately set out to infuse the show with First Nations art.

He carved a raven mask that could carry a small video-screen inside and took the mask home to his brother Timmy in Ucluelet who wore it while performing a raven dance in several local areas while Wenstob recorded his movements. “It was about the movement that a raven does,” Wenstob said. “He was mimicking that movement.” Wenstob also shot a video of Timmy dancing with the mask in front of a bluescreen and he superimposed Timmy’s movements onto video of ravens flying.

When it came time to display the mask at the yearend show on April 4, the video of Timmy was playing inside.

“When you put the mask on you’re watching this dancer dance with the mask your wearing,” Wenstob said. “People were putting on this mask and they were dancing around the gallery space as other people were watching them; so they became these performance artists right then and there because they were watching this video inside.”

Wenstob said it took some time for the show’s attendance to embrace the concept of wearing the mask because of their engrained notion that art is not to be touched.

“I had a friend who works at a local arts collective in Victoria and she came up with an idea of taking a sign that says ‘please do not touch the artifacts’ and we took red paint to it and took out the ‘not’ and took out the “ifacts” on the end so it said ‘please do touch the art,'” he said.

“A good number of people put it on and there was about three of them that actually danced around the room mimicking Timmy’s movement, so I think it worked really well.”

Wenstob posted the video’s of Timmy dancing onto his Facebook page and was quickly contacted by the Adaka Cultural Festival in the Yukon to use them in their event this summer.

Wenstob was also invited to be a mentor at the festival next year.

Honouring his mentor One of the patrons who danced in the mask was Wenstob’s art-history professor who fell in love with the concept and contacted Victoria’s Legacy Art Gallery to discuss a potential art show.

Wenstob had submitted a paper on his mentor Art Thompson and while the original concept for the show was for Wenstob to pay tribute to his mentor, the art gallery requested Wenstob’s work to be displayed as well.

Thompson passed away in 2003 after imprinting a profound passion for carving into Wenstob’s heart.

“He was an amazing friend. He’s a lot of the inspiration for me carving,” Wenstob said.

UVic has about 100 Art Thompson prints.

“I’m going to work all through the school year doing research on Art Thompson and finding those prints as well as carving a whole series of these masks with the videos inside and taking over the whole Legacy Art Gallery and doing a three-month show,” Wenstob said.

“Being able to stand with Art Thompson, that’s a huge honour,” Wenstob said. “I think the biggest thing is being beside Art Thompson and having both or our art shown together.”

Art versus craft During the past three years at UVic Wenstob said he has battled the institutional art world’s hesitance to perceive First Nations art as art.

“The view of many universities’ art departments is that First Nation art is a form of craft, it has a utilitarian purpose and in that sense it’s not contemporary art, is what they say,” Wenstob said, adding this has been a subject of much debate between himself and the school.

“It is more than art without a doubt -it’s culture, it’s tradition, it’s thousands of years of history and it’s a visual way of representing that history, but it is also a beautiful form of art that’s recognized all around the world.” He recalled the first art piece he handed in was a mask his professor declined to grade.

“They said ‘we’re not going to judge this, this is not art,’ simple as that,” Wenstob said.

He said the classes’ process is to submit art and to be critiqued by the class for 15 minutes.

“When I was first handing in work, I’d put in something and we’d sit silent in the room for 15 minutes and then move on to someone else. They wouldn’t even talk about it, no acknowledgment of it at all because it was, in their eyes, not art,” he said.

“Ever since then it’s been this uphill battle to do every project in my First Nation culture…Every project we’ve done so far has been regarding this argument of craft versus art, so when I heard we had an interactive video to do we were trying to take it in a way that we could make the audience interact with First Nations art and culture.”

He said the conversation has opened up a bit since his first year and his work is now graded.

“They’ll actually talk about it now, which is a big step, I guess, but it’s an uphill battle and I think every First Nations student that’s gone through the UVic art department has faced it. A lot of them have dropped out. A lot of them have switched programs, or they’ve, kind of, conformed and not done their First Nation art,” he said.

“There’s a few that have gone through and fought their way though the whole thing, so I’m another fighting my way through.”

Wenstob will graduate next year and hopes he has helped carve a path for the First Nations students who follow him.

“It’s a battle that I’m having but it’s a battle they’re going to have as well so we’re hopefully breaking down a few of those barriers and those walls along the way,” he said.

“We get to pave a way a little bit and there’s other people that paved the way before me as well.”

Buddy the Raven As with everything Wenstob does, the story behind the raven mask is fascinating.

Wenstob chose the raven for his mask’s inspiration because of his own personal experiences with his childhood friend Buddy the Raven.

“There’s symbolism to myself personally,” he said.

Wenstob grew up on a remote island in Barkley Sound and during a trip to Victoria, his mother and grandfather came across an at-risk raven.

“They were driving to Victoria and there was a baby raven that had been kicked out of its nest and it was hopping down the gravel road so they stopped to go and pick it up because once a raven is kicked out of the nest by its mom, it cant go back,” he said.

“Mom spent I don’t know how long running down the side of a bank trying to catch this raven because it was going to die if she left it… They brought it back home and it was just part of our life and it still is part of our life.”

His mother Jessie Masso remembered building a pen for the raven out of chicken wire so Buddy would be free to roam when he was ready.

“We made it out of chicken wire because we figured once it was strong enough to look after itself it was strong enough to get out and it slowly ripped a hole in the pen and we saw it every day get bigger and bigger and we figured it would just fly away,” she said.

“It flew off and went and bugged the dog and bugged the chickens and then it sat on our porch and it would talk and ramble on. It was so wonderful and every time we left the island, it would come down to the dock and see us off and every time we came back, it would be about a mile before it would hear our boat and come out and meet us and guide us in to the dock.”

This relationship lasted for eight years and continues despite the family’s relocation to Ucluelet.

“He’s just the most amazing raven,” Masso said. “He got a mate and they had young ones…They were just part of home.”

Wenstob drew from this experience while, “trying to find something we could carve that has that beautiful movement; we knew that movement of that raven as it grew,” he said. “We were able to remember that movement that tricky little smile that the raven has on its mouth all the time too.”

He said his family bird is the kingfisher but it was important to him to honour the important impact Buddy the Raven had on his family.

reporter@westerlynews.ca