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Objects of Exchange: Transition, Transaction, and Transformation on the Late-Nineteenth Century Northwest Coast

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Excerpt from: Objects of Exchange: Transition, Transaction, and Transformation on the Late-Nineteenth Century Northwest Coast. Edited by Aaron Glass. New York: American Museum of Natural History and Bard Graduate Center. Due out in Spring 2011.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: It Looks Like Manga

Judith Ostrowitz

“The outward appearance of two phenomena may be identical, yet their immanent qualities may be altogether different.”1

It started with Franz Boas, who wrote this statement in 1887. Appearances to the contrary, cause and effect are not so easily linked, either in culture-wide phenomena or in the forms of individual works of art. When considering the recent, confident appropriation of international styles and concepts in works by several contemporary Northwest Coast artists, one must keep Boas’s formulation in mind. Like their counterparts in the non-Native art world, these artists make use of their considerable familiarity with worldwide traditions and media to build complex visual statements. Perhaps, at last, they feel assured of the authority and honored status of their Native art traditions as they are now perceived in far-flung territories, following a significant history of museum exhibitions and scholarly texts that have acknowledged indigenous invention and ownership. Some now tackle more experimental works, enthusiastically taking up devices from foreign territories. Therefore, it is extremely useful to tease out the differences between these cosmopolitan new works and those they may loosely resemble.

A complete survey of Northwest Coast artists who explore a multiplicity of traditions is not possible here. Given the scope of this essay, I believe it is more useful to reflect upon the extremely provocative work of one artist, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, as a case study. This artist has devoured a smorgasbord of art worlds and come up with an inimitable body of work. Yahgulanaas cites his relatively traditional studies with Haida artists Robert Davidson and Jim Hart Edenso, as well as his close observation of Haida carved panel pipes, as influential for his artistic development. However, he also considers his work with Chinese brush painter Cai Ben Kwon, his studies of Japanese wood-block printing, and his study of Japanese manga illustration to have been formative.2

Although Yahgulanaas has worked in other media, he has become known for what he calls “Haida manga,” which is, simply stated, a Haida—really a Yahgulanaas—take on Japanese illustrated novels or comics. His work in this manner has very broad appeal. In just the last couple of years, he has had several solo exhibitions: in 2010 at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver; in 2009 at the Masters Gallery and the Glenbow Museum, both in Calgary; and in 2007 at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His many illustrated publications include the recent Red: A Haida Manga (2009), which is as of this writing a finalist for the sixth annual Doug Wright Award for the best in Canadian comics.

It is interesting that the literature about Japanese manga itself makes references to several cultures of origin and outlines a developmental process that spans a great swath of history. The word manga is supposed to have been invented by the Japanese artist Hokusai in the nineteenth century to refer to the quick sketches he made, for the most part, for his students. However, manga-like style is said to have much greater historical depth, descending in spirit from ancient caricatures, illuminated scrolls, and even brocade prints. We do know that Chinese and later Japanese scrolls historically encouraged the production of images as a series of vignettes and often from a variety of angles, sometimes as bird’s-eye views, each frame permitting viewers to experience a different perspective.3

For some art audiences, particularly those born in the first half of the twentieth century, manga history also includes a suggestion of satire. However, in Japan, as in North America, younger audiences may no longer associate these visual narratives with any particular social commentary or political content. Contemporary descriptions of manga also suggest that the origin of image sequencing is, in fact, related to frames as we know them from filmmaking on an international scale. Whereas most discussions of manga credit the long descent from Japanese art forms, there is to some degree or other an alternate point of view that attributes greater influence to more recent media, such as photography and film, in particular the comic books of U.S. origin that appeared in Japan after World War II.4 All of these histories, varied as they may be, pay tribute to some form of nexus of Eastern and Western traditions.

These factors make Yahgulanaas’s choice and adaptation of manga style a truly cross-cultural phenomenon. And he has become adept with the play that is possible between media and message within this particular array of traditions. For example, the influence of traditional calligraphy in Japanese manga is clear. Painted lines in manga are extremely expressive, and certain lines have become conventionalized so that some denote action or establish speed lines. Also, thick black strokes around a figure have an emotional connotation, indicating that the character is shocked in some way. Similarly, lines drawn to create wild coiffures are said to express freedom, and, conversely, brushstrokes tamed to illustrate carefully bound hair may denote emotional restriction. Hatching can also establish mood according to its weight and tone. Other forms have iconographic significance, such as the sparks and tears that fly from characters’ eyes, and cherry blossoms worked into a background have been known to indicate a “sweet or beautiful moment.”5

Traditional Haida, or northern Northwest Coast, graphic or formline elements also carry a great load of references, but not because they are expressive in gesture or conventionalized to describe any part of a narrative. Instead they function as the components that make up stylized legendary creatures; some are more abstract forms. Equally important is that they include key cues about the identity of the artists who created them, since hereditary and cultural prerogatives are discernable on the basis of style. For example, group membership may dictate, to varying degrees, the shape and proportionate relationship of facial features or the relative thickness or length and continuity of form line. Some groups use more angular lines, others more rounded ones, and the individual artist’s hand may also be detected, for example, by the typical eye form used or a characteristic combination of elements, such as the weight of a line, use of hatching, and so on. It is possible that these lines and forms once encoded additional information (perhaps representational, cultural, or even cosmological), but these meanings may now be lost. Bill McLennan and Karen Duffek have commented provocatively that “perhaps two-dimensional painted images were able to convey depth, volume, and movement in ways entirely foreign to contemporary eyes. . . . Perhaps this is a language in which ovoids and formlines function not only as units of visual form but also as units of thought and perception.6

Yahgulanaas builds on all of this, exploring what formline can do. Some of his illustrated stories include entire frames organized around a combination of these calligraphic lines and stylized elements. In some of these stories, he creates spatial disjunction and a certain ambiguity between positive and negative space, as can be the case in some traditional Northwest Coast painted art as well. However, in Yahgulanaas’s stories, the spatial effects can be extreme. Even more unprecedented are the emotional qualities that result from his application of formline to the manga genre, thereby reinforcing the relationship with both Japanese and North American comic books. Perhaps paradoxically, it is through this unusual combination of existing devices that Yahgulanaas takes his work into completely unexplored territory, creating something that has never existed before in any of these traditions.

In A Lousy Tale (2004),7 for example, the legendary character Raven, known from many traditional Northwest Coast stories, carries out his customary shenanigans in the negative spaces between formline elements, as if they made up a tangible, latticework world. The action takes place in and between screen-like structures made up of ovoids, U forms, and the like, which set up deep, windowlike vistas onto more naturalistic and narrative scenes that have nothing stylistically to do with Northwest Coast art. In Figure 5.1, the third frame of this narrative, Raven visits the village of his sister and her husband, Cormorant, literally entering their world through black lines that widen and taper, just as they do in traditional paintings known from the sides of bentwood boxes and depictions of huge crest creatures on old house façades. It is also important to note that sections of the calligraphic lines have been “frazzled” or “electrified,” perhaps because these pieces are meant to suggest tree limbs. They may illustrate leafy extensions, but in addition to this representational function, they are painted expressively in comic book mode, not as they would ever appear in traditional Northwest Coast art. This rendering of the lines supports the expression of emotional disarray and the nervy, high energy that Raven brings to all of his undertakings.

Visible through this structure is a relatively naturalistic view of an elaborate traditional Haida style house, viewed from above at a raking angle, complete with frontal pole and roof beams that terminate in carved bears’ heads and paws. Perspectival devices used here originate in Western art, but the house is also shown with the mortise-and-tenon corner construction, gently curved or hollowed out in a manner that is considered diagnostic for authentic Haida architecture.

Similarly, in the somewhat zany The War of the Blink, one frame of which is shown in figure 5.2, Yahgulanaas creates a race course environment of calligraphic lines and formline elements on which characters cavort.8 These function something like the speed lines known from Japanese manga. Here, in blue, the same color as the sea that flows behind and through the calligraphy, the lines swell or expand and then contract. In fact, Yahgulanaas has said that “the study of Haida design is like the study of water because the basic theme is compression and expansion.”9 His painting suggests a direct relationship between Northwest Coast calligraphy and Western–style representation of water, based upon his own insight gained from the observation of nature. Some meanings, of course, come from the artist’s subjective take, not from any existing tradition at all.

Yaghulanaas reports that he creates the formline layer for important reasons, to explore ways of seeing. He says that “the world is full and time and space are full.” He wishes to show us that there are things that are happening outside of our own “story boxes.” Some of his pieces make a greater point of these parallel realities than others. In his new work, Red: A Haida Manga, for example (the pages of which can be assembled and viewed as a mural in certain settings, as seen in figure 5.3), one must move in closely to follow the details of the narrative, but as you step back, you can see characters drawn in crest-art fashion that function independently of the Red narrative. Yahgulanaas is engaged with the illumination of spaces that have previously been considered empty, both in a physical sense and metaphorically. On one level, he connects his peopling of these voids with a denial of the European legend that North America was “an empty space” when it was first encountered, because the realities of the so-called savages that inhabited this continent were “uncivilized” and therefore negligible. Yahgulanaas has been working for some time on the depiction of these simultaneous phenomena, in comic book fashion, even calling his formlines “time and space lines,” but somehow he does not feel that he has accomplished this goal effectively enough as yet.10

Yahgulanaas’s embrace of the comic book genre to infuse with Haida ideas and some elements of traditional style art, along with whatever visual devices that work for him, has somehow been negotiated without crossing lines or causing problems at home, on Haida Gwaii. He claims that the only criticism he has heard is that his works are not sufficiently available there.11 This is no small feat since on the Northwest Coast the particulars of style application are completely intertwined with issues of exclusivity and privilege. In two-dimensional works, the breadth of an eyebrow or the relative continuity of the calligraphic formline is dictated by the tribal and subgroup affiliations of the artist. Most importantly, traditional work must not include subject matter or crest art that the owner or custodian of the piece is not entitled to display in public, by virtue of proper descent as well as important processes of public validation, which take place for the most part at potlatches.

This is very different from the world of Japanese manga, which suggests a certain democratization or accessibility and not just because of its mass production in comic book or graphic novel form. In fact, all comers are invited to try out this art form for themselves, skilled artists and amateurs alike. An epiphenomenon of manga culture is the proliferation of instructional books, software, and tutorials posted on the Web that educate would-be manga practitioners about motifs, conventionalizations and strategies for creating their own illustrations in manga style. For example, SmithMicro Software has recently published Manga Studio Debut 4, the most recent version of graphic software designed to enable the creation of these illustrations. The software includes tools for inking and shading, as well as a range of word balloons for character dialogue. Online instruction in manga style is also available from such sites as Manga University, which breaks down the art form into series of conventionalizations, including charts for coiffures and eyes that are intended to result in the production of manga-style characters.12

It is tempting to draw comparisons between these strategies and the instructional character that some Northwest Coast scholarship since the 1960s and 1970s developed in an effort to decode or analyze the Northern Northwest Coast graphic tradition. Several non-Native scholars were preoccupied with the discovery of design rules that would unlock the secrets of its composition. For almost a hundred years, anthropologists and art historians have created their own charts, analyzing the salient features of legendary Northwest Coast creatures—their eyes, ears, noses, fins, claws, and son on.13 Twentieth-century art historians and anthropologists labored to explain these elements, as well as the devices for combining them, to audiences of outsiders, and produced tomes that amounted to handbooks or style manuals. However, they did not anticipate the contention that would result from these analyses of form. Although unintended, their projects emphasized the importance of outsiders in the so-called revival of Northwest Coast art traditions, offending Native artists, thinkers, and activists who had made the preservation of various aspects of traditional practice their life’s work. Nonetheless, many Native artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have found this scholarship to be extremely useful as a part of their education.14 Although outsiders may now better understand the graphic tradition because of this scholarship, they are not supposed to use Northwest Coast styles to make art unless they are entitled to do so by culture and heredity. Northwest Coast artists do not and are not likely to permit the kind of access that the manga community encourages in the foreseeable future.

However, certain ideals, highly valued by both Haida and non-Haida communities, have been articulated through Yahgulanaas’s foray into manga culture. He has taken up the tradition of social commentary that some associate with manga, constructing and recounting stories about social responsibility, particularly in relation to his concern about the environment. For example, his recent Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment (2008), with contributions by Wangari Maathai and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, both winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a version of a Quechua story about a hummingbird that “does what she can,” as she labors to put out a devastating forest fire with water transported in her beak, using one drop at a time. Yahgulanaas has illustrated the story with simple and effective graphics that include both Haida elements and comic-book conventions. Figure 5.4 shows the little bird as a combination of Northwest Coast graphic elements within a black, somewhat naturalistic bird-shaped matrix. The lively water drop has just emerged from a simple horizontal ellipse that suggests the stream from which it was taken. Collaged graphic elements from both Northwest Coast and Euro-American traditions have been used to similar effect before, as in many serigraph prints by Northwest Coast artists. However in this case, the simplicity and restraint of the composition suggest Yahgulanaas’s relationship with Japanese art as well.

This is a multifaceted negotiation that dances back and forth among genres and traditions. Yahgulanaas’s ideas do not become subsumed by Japanese or Euro-American culture on the basis of some vague formal affinity. e assembles a varied toolbox of devices and concepts to achieve his own ends. These ends are very much related to worldwide dialogue. In fact, he considers the interest of viewers outside of his own community to be a true measure of the success of his work,15 and it seems that his choice of manga as the medium for his message has placed him on the fast track to that success. However, it is important to observe that these works are not completely congruent with manga, Northwest Coast, or any other existing styles or concepts.

There are other Northwest Coast artists who are making equally interesting connections with artists and traditions in foreign territories. Like Yahgulanaas, Don Yeomans is of Haida and British descent, and most of his work, both carved and flat, demonstrates his preoccupation with extremely sinuous and curvilinear versions of formline, still in the Northern Northwest Coast graphic tradition. He also experiences some affinity with the ornamental spirals, interlaces, knotwork, and stepped and key motifs associated with Celtic art, an unheard-of phenomenon until now, and he incorporates these devices into his work. Similarly, several interesting Northwest Coast artists—Joe David (Nuu-chah-nulth), Dempsey Bob (Tahltan-Tlingit), and Susan Point (Coast Salish), among others—have forged a “Pacific Connection” with their indigenous colleagues from New Zealand, as a result of conferences, workshops, and personal pilgrimages between home territories. This process has resulted in some unusual hybrid works, mostly masks and prints that incorporate concepts and motifs that artists consider to be meaningful in both Maori and Northwest Coast cultures.

Greater analyses of works like these are forthcoming, and they will be useful. As a part of the process, it will be important to observe the ways in which these new art works depart from the varied traditions that inspire them. They may appear to be similar, but their immanent qualities may be altogether different.


Fig. 5.1

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (b. 1954). One frame from A Lousy Tale (2004). ADD DIMENSIONS FROM DOWNLOAD Digital and ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist. ADD Photo credit.
Fig. 5.2

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (b. 1954). One frame from The War of the Blink (2006). Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Fig. 5.3

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (b. 1954). Red: A Haida Manga (2009). Watercolor, graphite on paper, 66 x 80 in. Courtesy of the artist. ADD PERMISSION FROM DOUGLAS & MCINTYRE WHEN AQUIRED. ADD Photo credit.

Fig. 5.4

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (b. 1954). Page 21 from Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment (2008). ADD DIMENSIONS AND MEDIUM. Courtesy of the artist. ADD PERMISSIONS GREYSTONE BOOKS. DOUGLAS &MCINTYRE PUBLISHING GROUP WHEN ACQUIRED. ADD Photo credit.

References Cited

Augaitis, Daina. “The Impulse to Create: Daina Augaitis in conversations with Robert Davidson, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Don Yeomans” in Raven Traveling: Two Centuries of Haida Art. Vancouver Art Gallery. 2006. Pages 154-175.

Boas, Franz. “Museums of Ethnology and their Classification.” Science 9. 1887. Pages 587-89, 614.
__________ Primitive Art. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1955, originally published in 1927.
Brown, Steven C. Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum/ University of Washington Press. 1998.
Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1965
Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. Paris: Flammarion. 2007.
“Manga Iconography” in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
“Manga University.”
McLennan, Bill, and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations. Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press/ Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2000.
“Notes on Haida Manga.” Geist.
Ostrowitz, Judith. Interventions: Native American Art for Far-Flung Territories. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2009.
Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll. Red: A Haida Manga. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. 2009.
Yahgulanaas, Michael. Telephone interview with author. March 4, 2010.
Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll with Wangari Maathai and His Holiness the Dalai Lama Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment. Greystone Books. Vancouver: Douglas & Mcintyre Publishing Group. 2008.


 Franc Boas, “Museums of Ethnology and their Classification,” Science 9 (1887): 589.


3 Brigitte Koyama-Richard, One Thousand Years of Manga (Paris: Flammarion, 2007), 6–7, 9.

4 Ibid.


6 McLennan, Bill, and Karen Duffek, The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations (Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press/ Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2000), 113.

7 The series of images that make up A Lousy Tale can be viewed on Yahgulanaas’s Web site:

8 See the entire The War of the Blink series of images at

9 Daina Augaitis, “The Impulse to Create: Daina Augaitis in conversations with Robert Davidson, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Don Yeomans,” in Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006), 156.

10 Michael Nicoll Yaghulanaas, telephone interview with author, March 4, 2010.

11 Ibid.


13 Franz Boas, Primitive Art (1927, repr. New York: Dover, 1955); Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965); Steven C. Brown, Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum/ University of Washington Press, 1998).

14 Judith Ostrowitz, “The Good Reader of Contemporary Native American Art,” in Interventions: Native American Art for Far-Flung Territories (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 109–42.

15 Michael Nicoll Yaghulanaas, telephone interview with author, March 4, 2010.

DRAFT: Not for reproduction. Reprinted with permission of J. Ostrowitz

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