Weaving the art world together
by Louise Deglin
Meghann O’Brien, also known as Jaad Kuujus (“Dear Woman” in Haida language), is an artist of Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, and Irish descent. Her work, which is anchored in wool and cedar bark weaving, materializes the web that connects her to her community, ancestors, and the land. Meghann is a former professional snowboarder and did not begin this practice with the intent of becoming an artist. But, carried by the process, she has since brought those traditional art forms to an exceptional level of expertise and intricacy.
Learning and sharing traditional art forms
Meghann came to weaving intuitively, if not fortuitously. She discovered this practice in 2007 as she was harvesting foods and plants on the land during the summer, given her long-standing interest in nutrition and herbalism. One day, she heard that her ancestors used to pick berries with the help of baskets with tumplines, which are worn around the forehead so that both hands are free to move and harvest. She was immediately taken by her imagination and wanted to recreate one of such baskets herself. Meghann did not have a teacher yet, and she learnt the technique by herself using cedar bark, a fiber commonly used in weaving on the Northwest Coast. At that time, Meghann had no thoughts of finding a buyer for her creations. Woven objects, such as cedarbark hats, were rarely used in daily life by then and usually only worn during ceremonies or special occasions.
After producing her first basket, Meghann was introduced to hereditary chief Beau Dick, an exceptional Kwakwaka’wakw artist and off-and-on mentor of Meghann’s. She spent a lot of time at his house, surrounded by wood carvers. “I remember sitting in his house and all the carvers just working casually together all day, smoking and chatting and listening to music.” Beau’s house was not simply a workshop, but a place for community gathering as well as carving, cooking, and weaving. Meghann was introduced to Beau’s daughter, Kerri, who took her under her wing that summer and fall. She trained Meghann in cedar bark weaving , and from there introduced her to her mother Sherri, and Tsimshian master weaver William White, who taught her Raven’s Tail and Chilkat weaving over the course of the next three years.
This strong communal web, woven through Meghann’s training, is the main reason that the artist strongly advocates for practicing traditional art forms. For her, they are pathways for the community, and practices which take part in a holistic society, where everything is connected to everything else. She likes to picture this transmission process as seeds that are planted, grow, and, in turn, generate more seeds.
Meghann would like to take part in the sharing of traditional art forms to pass on techniques, but she doesn’t feel like she is well suited to be an authority figure. For her, “there is a strictness and respect that comes with those traditions that I don’t want to impose on somebody, but at the same time I do not want to feel like I am giving knowledge incompletely or to someone who maybe will not carry it with the respect it deserves.” There is a strong sense of responsibility that comes with being a safekeeper of that cultural heritage. She believes there is a tremendous power within this work, that deserves to be respected, and understood.
Native art from and to the museum
Meghann laments the fact that traditional Native arts are very rarely featured in contemporary art exhibitions. For her, there is a tension between traditional art forms and contemporary art done with a Native twist: “it seems like our people more and more are going to art schools and treat our culture more like material to make contemporary art about, rather than an art form to practice in and of itself and that is worth pursuing in the Western world.” With this new trajectory, she wonders if there is a future for more traditional arts on the Northwest Coast in general, and how this potential decline in interest would impact potlatch culture.
She finds inspiration in artists like the late Beau Dick, who managed to have a successful career on the art market but then reinject the money into the community. “His view was that his job as an artist was to create, and no matter where that work went it was doing its job, which is to represent our culture.” The bulk of the money he earned went into the potlatch system and to support others. She recalls in 2012 when Beau was a recipient of the VIVA Award, granted annually by the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation, and he spent the entire amount bringing people from Alert Bay to the award ceremony so that they could get on stage to accept the award with him.
Meghann is very much aware of the tension between tradition and innovation, and does not advocate for one over the other. Thinking back to her time at Beau’s house, she ponders: “how would this exist without an art market?” The overall economic system of potlatching, often referred to as a gift economy, in which those objects functioned is almost gone today. It is thus challenging to take a material culture that was very sacred to make art with it, and to fit things in places where they did not before. For Meghann, some people are catalysts for change and adaptation, while others serve as anchors for the community. The latter keep energy and concepts that are meant to endure, such as relationships to the plants, to one’s teachers, and to community members. “We need ways that last through time” to balance out Western society and its values.
"How would this exist without an art market?"
When it comes to Native art collections in museums, Meghann perceives repatriation efforts as massively important, but the process itself as often problematic. For example, museums tend to place conditions on the objects that are being repatriated: in her view, it seems that the community has to interact with them and treat them exactly like a museum does in order to get them back. Meaning, “we can only get them back if we model the oppressors” comments Meghann. “We have no freedom, no agency. We should have the ability to choose what we want to do with them.” On the other hand, thanks to those repatriation efforts, community-run museums and cultural institutions have mushroomed in British Columbia.
Interacting with the art market
Similarly, Meghann does not perceive the art market in a black and white manner. While she still has ethical concerns with the art market, she cites the work of Donald Ellis, a gallerist specialized in Native American art who has played a role in giving back in pretty significant ways to Indigenous communities. She mentions for instance Ellis’ efforts to return a Sun Mask that was a part of the Potlatch Collection to the U’mista, a cultural center in her home community of Alert Bay . Overall, while she believes that there are many past and ongoing issues in the art market, Meghann considers that some art dealers can truly value Native art and traditional practices, in particular weaving which is often set aside as mere “woman’s work.” For Meghann, it is important to try to bring together people from museums, academia, and the art market, as each comes with its different approaches and contradictions.
Creating her own network
To connect these different worlds in a new and informed way, Meghann has her own idea. From 2015 to 2018, she wove “The Spirit of Shape,” which reproduces an apron held by the National Museum of the American Indian made using the cut pieces of a chilkat blanket. Meghann explains that the original Chilkat was cut in half, increasing its value as it was exchanged and cut. She is now starting a series of small necklaces based off of the apron, and would like to recreate the full-size chilkat. All these pieces would exist together for a time in an exhibition, and then would get cut and distributed for sale on the art market, for community use, or for museum collections. As such, it would “bridge all of those worlds and build relationships between them, highlighting the positive in these problematic spaces.” A daring project at the crossroad of her cultural heritage and the larger capitalistic and institutionalized society in which her work inevitably takes part. Weaving, quite literally, the art world together.
- Meghann O’Brien © Stasia Garraway
- She Came Up Really Fast (2012) Merino wool, cashmere, yellow cedar bark; Private collection; Kenji Negai photo; 5 x 8″ © Meghann O’Brien
- Feather Catcher Basket (2008) Yellow Cedar Bark; Private Collection; Kenji Negai photo; 2.75 x 2.5″ © Meghann O’Brien
- The Spirit of Shape (2015-2018) Merino wool, cashmere, cedar bark, linen; Collection of the artist; 29 x 15″ © Meghann O’Brien
- Man’s apron made from a Chilkat blanket representing a diving whale, attributed to Kaigani Haida (c. 1800-1870) National Museum of the American Indian 16/2768
- One Does Not Exist Without The Other (2017) Yellow cedar bark and acrylic paint; Sculpin design and painting by Jay Simeon; Private collection; 2 x 2″ © Meghann O’Brien