Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ḳi-ḳe-in

through to 28 March, 2010

17 January to 28 March, 2010

Opening reception:
Saturday, January 16, 3 to 5pm

Talking about Thliitsapilthim, Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains
Friday, January 15, 10 am – 5:30 pm
Saturday, January 16, 10 am – 12:30 pm

VANCOUVER: Curated by Professor Charlotte Townsend-Gault of the University of British Columbia, Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ḳi-ḳe-in brings together for the first time, contemporary ceremonial curtains by Nuuchaanulth artist Ron Hamilton (Ḳi-ḳe-in) and historical curtains from museum and private collections in Canada and the United States.

Painted on cotton, these are amongst the largest (up to 3 metres high x 10 metres long) portable two-dimensional paintings in the world. Historical ancestral exploits and episodes from family histories, conflicts, captures and alliances are seen in these striking narrative works. The Nuuchaanulth were the first people Europeans encountered when Captain James Cook landed at Yuquot in 1778 in what is now British Columbia. Though much of the art of the Northwest Coast has come to be associated with poles and carvings of the Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Nuuchaanulth have made and used ceremonial curtains for thousands of years on the west coast of what is now called Vancouver Island.

Each curtain has been painted following the instructions from a family needing it to tell the ‘backstory’, its history and spiritual pedigree, that will enhance and validate the ceremony of naming, celebrating a marriage, mourning, or reconciling. Curtains were originally painted using locally derived pigments, including charcoal, ochre and other minerals, on cedar planks or panels. The prohibitions on First Nations ceremonies that derived from the 1885 Indian Act meant that these events were driven underground, hidden from view. It was during this period that some of the fine older examples in this exhibition found their way into public and private collections around the world. But the Nuuchaanulth never stopped creating and displaying the stories that formed the backdrop to the most important events of their lives, although they were now using sail cloth or cotton so that they could be folded up and hidden from the Indian Agents, if necessary.

Accompanied by photographs, documents and interviews, Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ḳi-ḳe-in promotes a deeper understanding of Nuuchaanulth art and culture and is a celebration of these remarkable curtains and the people who make and use them.

Ron Hamilton (Ḳi-ḳe-in) is a Nuuchaanulth fisher, storyteller, poet, and scholar from the Hupacasath First Nation and lives on the Ahaswinis Reserve in the Alberni Valley. Hamilton is active internationally through his participation in public debates, symposia, and exhibitions concerning a trans-Pacific history for the cultures and art of the Northwest Coast. He has contributed to the publications, Indian Residential Schools: the Nuuchahnulth Experience (1996) and Listening to our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast (2006). Ḳi-ḳe-in has made a vital contribution to Nuuchaanulth traditional art, ceremonial and ritual life.

Charlotte Townsend-Gault is Professor in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University College London. Her interest is in contemporary Indigenous cultures and arts. Townsend-Gault was a curator of Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada (1992), Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (1995) and Rebecca Belmore (2002) for the Belkin Art Gallery. She has written on the work of Marianne Nicholson, James Luna, and Stan Douglas’ Nu.tka, and is at work on a book, ‘Masked Relations: Display and Disguise on the Northwest Coast.’ ‘The Idea of Northwest Coast Native Art: An Anthology,’ co-edited with Jennifer Kramer and Ḳi-ḳe-in will be published in 2010.

Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ḳi-ḳe-in is generously sponsored by The Audain Foundation and presented with the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad with support from the British Columbia Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

For more information contact Naomi Sawada at (604) 822-3640 or

Image: Ḳi-ḳe-in painting the thliitsapilthim of Ha’wilth Nuukmiis of the House of Iiwaasaht, Opitsat-h, Tla-o-qui-aht, winter 1988-89, Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Haayuusinapshiilthl.

Belkin Gallery