The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead, from Hitchcock to Heatherwick at the V&A.

Film

The British Film Institute, London, SE1: The Genius of Hitchcock, 1 June – 1 October

He is perhaps Britain’s most iconic filmmaker, and from June until October the BFI will be paying homage to the visionary director who left an indelible stamp on the world of cinema, art and popular culture. Two years ago, efforts began to restore Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films. Thanks to serious dedication from the BFI and its patrons, the restored films will be screened at world premiere events in June and July, hosted by iconic London venues including the British Museum and Wilton’s Music Hall. From August until October the BFI Southbank will also be screening the entire retrospective of the Hitchcock’s cinematic career.

Dance

Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican Centre, London, EC1 and EC2: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch — World Cities, 6 June – 9 July

Pina Bausch has stood the test of time as a seminal influence on modern dance, a performer and choreographer with an experimental viewpoint and an “unmatched ability to combine the poetic and the everyday”. Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Barbican Centre team up for a marathon series of performances: ten works inspired by ten global cities – each one lived in by Bausch and her dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal for a period of time – staged over four weeks. Sadler’s Wells artistic director and Pina Bausch devotee Michael Morris calls the season an endurance test dreamt up “over a dinner filled with red wine.” Sure to be an extraordinary dance spectacle of the first order.

Ideas

Hay-on-Wye, Wales: How the Light Gets In Festival, 31 May - 10 June

How the Light Gets In can proudly call itself the largest philosophy and music festival in the world. Hosted in the lovely Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, the festival features ten days of debates on a host of philosophical topics ranging from art to ethics, politics to science. Here is a place where provocative ideas can mingle with a fine array of alternative music and comedy. Our own culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, will be chairing a debate on Uncharted Territory: Progress for the New Era, as well as speaking in discussions titled Hawking v. Philosophy and The World in Our Hands (featuring Nigel Lawson and Polly Higgins).

Exhibition

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, SW7: Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, 31 May - 30 September

This will be the first major exhibition of the work of Thomas Heatherwick and his design team at Heatherwick Studio. Hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have called Heatherwick “one of the most inventive and experimental British design studios practising today,” this is a thrilling opportunity to see some of the more infamous (a redesigned Routemaster) and lesser-known gems (the Longchamp zipper bags) from Heatherwicks’ oeuvre. Thames and Hudson have also published a very beautiful book to coincide with the show’s opening.

Art

Various Venues, London: London Festival of Photography, 1 - 31 June

Formally known as the London Street Photography Festival, this month-long series of exhibitions is back for its second year with a new name but the same agenda – to provide a platform for photography as a means of “visual storytelling”. This year’s exhibitions will be grouped around the common theme of Inside Out: Reflections on the Public and Private. With work from established and emerging artists, contemporary practitioners and historic entrepreneurs, the scope of work is broad and forward thinking. Highlights will include The Gaddafi Archive, an exclusive series excavated from the Human Rights Watch photography collection, and the Great British Public - contemporary images from across Britain shot by range of talented photographers.

Alfred Hitchcock in Cambridge, 1966 (Photo: Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images)
© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit