October 3, 2014

'From the Depths' Symbolism

Lattimer Gallery's current show From the Depths: Jewellery Inspired by the Sea contains some atypical imagery found within the Northwest Coast Native art market. Most of the figures depicted in First Nations art from the West Coast are family crest symbols which are common throughout British Columbia and Washington State. The orca, the bear, the raven...these are all animal figures that appear again and again in Northwest Coast art and jewellery. Below are meanings behind some of the more obscure representations in our exhibition From the Depths:

Clam represents creation. Raven discovered the first humans in a large clamshell, and clams proliferate all along the Northwest Coast. In art, they are often personified and shown with small human faces.

Eulachon represents wealth and plenty. Also referred to oolichan and candlefish, this tiny fish from the smelt family is plentiful in BC and is valued as both a fuel and food source. Eulachon oil was and still is highly prized within many First Nations communities, and was an important trade item.

Dean Hunt's Sterling Silver Eulachon Bracelet

Humpback Whale
Humpback whales represent communication and unity. While the orca is a crest symbol within many Northwest Coast cultures, baleen whales are not common as family crests. Having said this, gray and humpback whales are common along the West Coast, and whales in general are very vocal and look out for one another by traveling in pods.

Jellyfish represents flexibility and acceptance. Common within the Pacific along the coast, the jellyfish floats instead of swims, and is carried where ever the current takes it. Although the jellyfish is soft and adaptable, it can also sting and defend itself when necessary.

Octopus represents transformation. Commonly referred to as Devilfish, the Octopus is a secondary crest figure but is central to many myths along the Northwest Coast. The Octopus has close links to shamanism and transformation symbolism due to its ability to change colour and shape.

Gus Cook's Octopus and Dzunukwa Repousse Pendant
Sea Snag
Sea Snag represents responsibility and protection. It is a supernatural figure common within Haida culture associated with Sea Bear and Sea Wolf, symbols linked to the beginnings of the world and the formidableness of the ocean. Sea Snag is the personification of driftwood or deadheads.

Sea Wolf
Also referred to as Wasgo, the Sea Wolf is a supernatural figure associated with the mystique and power of the ocean. As Thunderbird represents the prodigiousness of the sky, Sea Wolf represents the vastness of the sea. This creature is often shown with the head and tail of a wolf, with whale elements such as fins and a blowhole.

Seals represent wealth and plenty. They have always been an important resource along the Northwest Coast, providing food, fuel, and clothing. Seal is often depicted with salmon, as this is a favourite food, and both creatures represent abundance.

Kelvin Thompson's Seal Hunt Bracelet

Sisiutl represents duality. It is a double-headed sea serpent that can flip boats and deal death, or bestow power and protect communities. Often depicted horizontally with a humanoid head in the middle with two wolf-like heads on either end, this mythological figure often appears in the art of British Columbia’s southern First Nations cultures.

Sturgeon represents mystery and wonder. Known to many Indigenous cultures as Monster Fish and ruler of freshwater estuaries and rivers, the sturgeon is a massive and slow-moving species that can grow to weigh up to 4000 lbs. They are identified by their pointed nose, long body, and whiskers.

Turtle represents the land and continuity. It is not a symbol found within Northwest Coast art and culture, but the turtle is a central figure with Plains and Woodlands mythology. Turtle is associated with creation in Plains and Woodlands culture.

Sharifah Marsden's Sea Turtles Pendant

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