The exhibition is a thoughtful exploration of the life and legacy of George Clutesi; born in 1905 he began creating art at an early age, however the Alberni Residential School survivor didn’t begin exhibiting until the 1940s. Famed West Coast artist Emily Carr was so impressed with Clutesi’s work that she gifted her paint brushes, oils, and canvases to Clutesi in her will. The artist, writer, educator and activist’s actions have left an indelible mark on the preservation and celebration of the Nuu-chah-nulth community’s cultural traditions and customs.
The exhibition features an extensive collection of Clutesi’s artworks, as well as archival photographs and news clippings of his achievements, a documentary film about his long-lasting impact, and a curated selection of artworks from contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth artists and scholars, inspired by Clutesi’s activism and scholarship.
“Like Bill Reid, who also lived and worked in the mid 20th century, George Clutesi was a huge inspiration for the next generation of Nuu-chah-nulth artists and scholars,” says Bill Reid Gallery curator Aliya Boubard. “While they had very different life experiences and approaches to their art forms, these artists helped raise awareness both inside and outside of their communities. George has been instrumental in not only educating others about his community’s cultural traditions, but preserving the sacred stories, dances, and masks that are practiced and celebrated today.”
The exhibition showcases 45 artworks by Clutesi, mainly from public institutions and private lenders, which include original drawings, paintings, prints, and some reproductions. Clutesi’s work often depicts figures and themes central to Nuu-chah-nulth stories, such as whales, thunderbirds, dances, masks, and spiritual customs. Also on display are archival clippings, audio recordings, and photographs, highlighting Clutesi’s expanding presence in the B.C. community and across Canada. From creating a large mural for Expo 67, or writing articles to the Indigenous newspaper Native Voice, to sharing Nuu-chah-nulth stories on CBC radio, Clutesi is considered to be one of the first Indigenous writers and scholars in British Columbia to write about their own oral traditions and customs. He later published books, including Potlatch and Son of Raven, Son of Deer.
Also an educator and human rights advocate, a moving documentary filmed/edited by Tsawout filmmaker and actor Dano Underwood recounts childhood memories of seven Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) survivors, who were cared for and counselled by Clutesi while he was working as a janitor, and later as an educator, at AIRS. Himself a residential school survivor, he often shared cultural stories, songs, and dances with his students to instill a sense of self-pride, offering hope to children who had been forcibly separated from their families and homes.
The exhibition further honours Clutesi’s legacy through the striking display of artworks from contemporary artists Hjalmer Wenstob (Tla-o-quiaht), Timmy Masso (Tla-o-quiaht), Marika Swan (Tla-o-quiaht), and Petrina Dezall (Mowachaht/Muchalaht), inspired by themes and aspects of Clutesi’s life, such as family relationships, healing through ceremony, connection to earth and traditional medicines. Contemporary scholars Dr. Dawn Smith (Ehattesaht) and Dr. Tommy Happynook (Huu-ay-aht) have created pieces inspired by Clutesi’s writing – including cedar bark regalia, influenced by the teachings in Potlatch and a set of hanging drums, inspired by Son of Raven, Son of Deer, inscribed with Clutesi and Happynook’s writings, bringing life to a silent song.
is on show at Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, 639 Hornby Street, from January 20, 2024 to January 19, 2025. The Gallery is currently open Wednesday to Sunday, 11a – 5pm, Adult Admission $13, Seniors $10, Students $8, Children 12 and under + Indigenous Peoples FREE. Visit billreidgallery.ca for more details.