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HARRIS, Walter (1931-2009)


    HARRIS, Walter (1931-2009)

    Polychrome painting (black, red and natural) on carved cedar wood
    102  x 284  cm

    Date of entry at UNESCO

    Donation made to UNESCO by Canada.

    Country of origin

    © All rights reserved
    © Photo : UNESCO/P Lagès

    Click on the images to enlarge

    This ‘sculpted’ painting by Walter Harris, composed of continuous lines and curves which seem to interweave and diminish, qualifies as "linear" or “configurative” art. The compositions are often abstract, such as this one, with the different elements or patterns fitting into each other. According to the rules of indigenous art, parts of an animal may stand for the whole,for example the crow’s beak here. Certain limbs can be “moved” (not depicted in the natural order) and interlaced among themselves. The crow in Harris’s painting is therefore partly hidden by other bird heads which fill the surface. The crow’s body is sculpted into the lower left part of the painting, the eye and beak in the center; his claws, catching the sun, are visible in the lower part of the work. In general, linear or figurative style paintings are carried out in a combination of three colors. The main lines are drawn in black (originally obtained with carbon) and the secondary lines in red; occasionally a third blue-green color is used, not found in this work.
    Despite a strongly abstract work created thanks to a network of curved lines of varying thickness, Harris succeeds in depicting the silhouette of a "large crow", a theme common to native legends. Considered a protective spirit by the Amerindians, the bird is a chief element of their myths; the crow is recurrent, in particular on rattles or everyday objects. In the legend of the "large crow stealing the sun" the bird is considered a divine messenger who, by stealing the sun from the chief of the skies in order to return it to the people on earth, becomes the symbol of the chieftains’ secular power. The sun epitomizes the light and the arts of a civilization; as such, the work donated to UNESCO is symbolic, in that it represents a demiurgic messenger bringing culture to the world.
    Artist biography
    Walter Harris was born in 1931 in the village of Kispiox (British Columbia, Canada), meaning "place of the Piyeroux ancestor ". In the 1920s, Kispiox suffered the consequences of the anti-potlatch law prohibiting traditional dances as well as any form of ritual practice. Despite these laws however, the Gitxsan people were able to preserve their ancestral traditions by adapting them to the new laws. It is within this climate of intolerance towards cults devoted to ancestors and totems symbolizing these practices that Harris grew up. Before participating in the revival of Ksan art, Harris took an active part in community life by becoming chief of his village at the age of 26, at a time when antipotlacht laws were still being enforced.
    Harris began his artistic career in the 1960s, at the same time as the opening of the Gitanmaax School of Indian Art. During this period he made the acquaintance of several artists focusing on the richness of traditional arts and the repeated use of the “figurative line”, among which Bill Holm, Jack Leland, Doug Cranmer and Pasco Duane. Harris developed various Ksan art techniques and created very diverse works, such as headgears, traditional masks, low-reliefs or sculptures, through which he reinterpreted the iconography of his people. He also created totems, hence renewing his ancestor’s traditions. The several public commissions he received - such as the totems on Victoria island or the low-reliefs and sculptures at the Canadian Embassy in France - bear witness to the importance of his work.
    A committed artist, Harris revived the tradition of pictorial decoration of housefronts. In parallel to his artistic career he was elected member of the Board for the Ksan village in the 1970s and also taught wood sculpting at the School of Indian Art. After several years teaching, he opened his own workshop in his home town. Walter Harris’s work has been essential for the promotion of Ksan artistic craft and customs, as well as in contemporary Canadian art.

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