Friday, 7 February 2014

The Great Box: re-learning through doing

The "Great Box" [PRM 1884.57.25]

Great news about the Great Box Project!


In 2009 a group of Haida carvers visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum were inspired, but also puzzled, by one large chest or box in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Said by several master carvers to be ‘in the upper stratosphere of Haida art’ (Robert Davidson, 2012), the box dates from the late 1800s. It would have been commissioned by a hereditary chief to hold clan treasures such as ritual masks and dance regalia.

Its artist demonstrates such a mastery of the formal rules of Haida art that he plays with these, twisting standard elements, tilting the planes of lines, and creating an unusually layered and dense integration of multiple elements in the design.

Gwaai Edenshaw:  Boxes are a good study of Haida formline.  They follow a certain set of conventions and they can easily be compared.  It is clear that the artist was a true master, exceptionally well versed in in the form. This single box has many innovations that we thought belonged to our modern day greats—an exciting, and humbling discovery. In addition, there are deviations from the norm contained in the form line. Examination also pulled up other quirks of innovation, or execution that were entirely new, some baffling, but in the context of the overall piece, the only logical conclusion is that we just don't get it, yet… We need a chance to spend more time with the box, tracing the lines and following the path that this old master did. 

The Haida group also noted that superb items such as the box are needed at home in Haida Gwaii to inspire artists to return the level of Haida art to such standards—impaired by the removal of masterpieces from Haida Gwaii through colonial policy, and the banning of the potlatch by the Canadian government—and ensure the art form continues to develop.

Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, brothers and carvers, wish to return to Oxford and study the Great Box further. To fully understand it, they wish to carve a new version of it, following the original design closely but also working their own understandings into the new one: an inspired, creative response to this piece which learns from, respects, and goes beyond the historic version.

Learning by doing is an established way of working for Haida artists, and for non-Haida carvers as well. While working with the Great Box in 2009, Gwaai Edenshaw noted ‘what a difference it makes to view things tactilely’ as part of the learning process. Feeling the tilted planes of ovoids and u-forms—standard elements in Haida art—was helpful in understanding the box’s artist’s (or artists’) mastery of formal expectations of line and space within Haida art. Carving and painting a new version of the box alongside the original for reference would be the next step in reclaiming this mastery of vision and technique.


I am delighted to say that the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK has now provided funding through its Impact Accelation Account for Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw to come to Oxford and the project to go ahead. They will carve a new version of the Great Box, which will return to Haida Gwaii to be an inspiration for other artists there. The activities on Haida Gwaii will be facilitated by the Haida Gwaii Museum, which will also continue the Pitt Rivers Museum's ongoing relationship with this amazing community resource. We’ll be working with public audiences in Oxford and holding knowledge-sharing sessions on Haida Gwaii, and making a few video podcasts about the project process. Exciting times ahead: watch this space!

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