In the heart of Vancouver, where the spirits of indigenous art whisper through the galleries, the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art is set to premiere the Vancouver retrospective of George Clutesi. From January 20, 2024, to January 19, 2025, visitors will have the privilege of experiencing “GEORGE CLUTESI: ḥašaḥʔap / ʔaapḥii / ʕac̓ik / ḥaaʔaksuqƛ / ʔiiḥmisʔap,” a contemplative exploration of the life and enduring legacy of a man whose impact on the preservation of Nuu-chah-nulth cultural traditions is nothing short of profound.

George Clutesi’s journey is unveiled through 45 artworks, including original drawings, paintings, prints, and reproductions. These pieces serve as a visual narrative of Nuu-chah-nulth stories, featuring symbols like whales, thunderbirds, dances, masks, and spiritual customs. Born in 1905, Clutesi’s artistic journey began early, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that he started exhibiting. A testament to his influence, iconic artist Emily Carr was so moved by his work that she bequeathed her tools to him, an act echoing the passing of the artistic torch from one generation to the next.

George Clutesi
George Clutesi, Mask of Plenty, 1944 Watercolour on card, 17.5 x 12 in Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BCA PDP01009

The exhibition goes beyond the canvas, offering a glimpse into Clutesi’s life through archival clippings, audio recordings, and photographs. His extensive presence in British Columbia and across Canada is showcased, including a mural for Expo 67, where his voice echoed internationally, anchoring Indigenous narratives. Clutesi’s artistic prowess wasn’t confined to visual expressions; he became one of the first Indigenous writers and scholars in British Columbia to share his people’s oral traditions and customs through articles and radio broadcasts.

However, Clutesi’s true impact transcends art and literature. As an educator and human rights advocate, his influence is poignantly portrayed in a documentary by filmmaker Dano Underwood. The film recounts the memories of seven survivors of the Alberni Indian Residential School, who found solace in Clutesi’s teachings and cultural sharing during their challenging times. A survivor of the same residential school, Clutesi used stories, songs, and dances to instill pride and hope in children forcibly separated from their families.

George Clutesi
Alberni Indian Residential School Survivor Memories of George Clutesi, 2023

The exhibition extends Clutesi’s legacy through contemporary voices, honoring his life through the works of Hjalmer Wenstob, Timmy Masso, Petrina Dezall, Dr. Dawn Smith, and Dr. Tommy Happynook. Each piece draws inspiration from Clutesi’s themes, creating a living tapestry that weaves the past and present. Through cedar bark regalia, hanging drums, and written inscriptions, the artists pay homage to Clutesi’s enduring impact.

The title of the exhibition, written in the Tseshaht language, encapsulates the multifaceted essence of Clutesi: ḥašaḥʔap (keep, protective) / ʔaapḥii (generous) / ʕac̓ik (talented) / ḥaaʔaksuqƛ (strong-willed) / ʔiiḥmisʔap (treasure).

As we venture into this awe-inspiring visual and spiritual voyage, it is of utmost importance to recognize and embrace the profound collaboration that lies at the very heart of this breathtaking showcase. Guided by the visionary minds of the esteemed Visual Stories Lab Curatorial Collective, in profound partnership with esteemed institutions and cultural advisors, this extraordinary exhibition serves as a glowing testament to the unwavering unity and collective devotion we all share in cherishing and honoring the extraordinary legacy of Clutesi.

Through cedar regalia, a story unfolds,
A strong-willed echo, a tale of gold.
In drumbeats, Clutesi’s voice,
A symphony of courage, a legacy’s choice.

Generous spirit, talented art,
Clutesi’s treasure, a gift to impart.
In life’s embrace, his essence alive,
A timeless tribute, a legacy to thrive.

Beyond the walls of the Bill Reid Gallery, the exhibition will passionately embark on its remarkable journey, stirring emotions, and leaving an indelible mark on all who encounter it. Its path will lead to the hallowed Legacy Gallery in enchanting downtown Victoria, come Spring 2025. Fear not, for Clutesi’s poignant narrative will persist, reverberating deeply within the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to witness it.

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