Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Festival

Battle of Ideas, Barbican, EC2, 20-21 October

The Battle of Ideas is a weekend of lectures, panel discussions and “conversations” on a wide range of subjects touching on morality, politics, art, science, gender and popular culture (to name a few). Claire Fox, director at the Institute of Ideas, states that the festival’s raison d’être is “to make virtues of free-thinking and dissent” and that its slogan is “FREE SPEECH ALLOWED”, urging attendees to hold their nerve, as no doubt “sensibilities will be offended”. The weekend kicks off first thing on Saturday morning with the question “What’s wrong with equality?” ending at 7:30pm the following evening with a panel discussing “No future: has pop lost its radical edge?” The line-up is too diverse to cover here and the speakers billed make for something of a battalion of potential In Our Time contributors, but you if you’re interested, click here for a full timetable of events.

Music

Grizzly Bear, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Sunday 21

Jazz-camp graduates Grizzly Bear bring their egalitarian experimental pop music to the beautiful Butterworth Hall at Warwick Arts Centre this weekend, in celebration of their superb new album Shields. The former Mercury-nominated Brooklyn outfit have produced a fourth album Pitchfork refer to as their “most compositionally adventurous record”, a collection of “unvarnished shipwreck spirituals” that form an “excavation of loneliness, melancholy, and self-reliance”. The rest of the week is just as aurally adventurous, featuring the best in pop experimentation with Field Music, Efterkland (Danish rock trio performing with the Sage’s Northern Sinfonia) and singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading.

Television

The Thick of It Inquiry, BBC2/HD, 9:45pm

Mr Tickell is dead. All are culpable and Lord Leve-, I mean Goolding, wants answers. The opposition, everyone at DoSAC and the civil service are to be grilled one at a time during this one-hour special, the penultimate episode in the fourth series of The Thick of It. The listings report “Lord Goolding is reputedly a fair man, but he is not going to stand for any nonsense and neither is his team of expert inquisitors, so surely now the truth will come out. Unless someone lies, or creates a diversion of some kind, or simply pretends not to remember anything. Which they obviously would never do.”

Art

Everyday Encounters, William Morris Gallery, E17, 13 October – 3 February

This exhibition in Walthamstow’s newly refurbished William Morris Gallery pivots on Morris’s oft-quoted proclamation: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Members of the Society of Designer Craftsmen have been invited to create and display new work in response to Morris’s rallying call, exploring the possibilities for materials, decoration, narrative and the role of craft in contemporary life. The majority of the work is available for sale and entry to the exhibition is free.

Film

Beasts of the Southern Wild, cinemas nationwide, out today

Already this film has received an indecent amount of hype. Winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the film has picked up awards and accolades like dead flies on a windshield, all of which will be splattered across billboards nationwide this weekend. It is the first film from director Behn Zeitlin, an adaptation of a one-act play calling upon the devastation of low-lying Louisiana to tell the story of Hushpuppy (played by Quevenzhané Wallis, only six years old when the film was shot) and her father Wink, who find their position increasingly desolate as the waters rise and Wink’s health begins to fail. “The Bathtub”, the bayou in which they live, is apocalyptic and mystical, and home to aurochs: boar-like ancestors unfrozen and released on the wilds by rising global temperatures. Tim Robey at the Telegraph produced this nifty little paragraph about the film’s protagonist: “Hush puppy is no holy innocent but a fizzy little sprite with a face like a clenched fist, facing everything that comes her way – principally the Katrina-like storm that threatens to obliterate her world – with the pugnacious instincts of a born survivor. She gets a voice-over, which applied the deliberately inarticulate lyricism of Terrence Malick to the Toni Morrison-like mantras recurring inside her head, whipping up fresh poetry from this cocktail of influences.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quevenzhané Wallis at Cannes. Photo: 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