March 30, 2010

"What is that?" A series on the outdoor artwork at the Burke, Part 2

This post is the second in a series about the artwork surrounding the outside of the Burke Museum (read the first post, about Mark Calderon’s Pluma sculpture here). In this post, we explore the answer to the commonly asked question: What is that tall female figure just outside the front doors of the Burke?

This Dzunuk'wa figure stands in front of the Burke Museum. Photo by Steve Whiston.

This is a carving of a Dzunuk'wa figure, a supernatural creature with importance to the Kwakwaka’wakw people. This replica was carved for the Burke Museum in 1970 by Curator Emeritus, Bill Holm.

Some people equate Dzunuk'wa, (pronounced D’ZOO-no-kwa) with Sasquatch, sometimes called Bigfoot, the shy hairy giant of the forest. Others view her as a fearsome creature that can be the source of great wealth. The privilege of representing Dzunuk'wa in carving and performance is a prized heritage of some Kwakwaka'wakw chiefs (the Kwakwaka'wakw people live on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland of British Columbia).

The pole outside the museum is a replica of the original (pictured at right in a 1914 photo by Edward Curtis), which was erected in Gwa'yasdam's village on Gilford Island, B.C in the early 19th century. This kind of pole is sometimes called a "ridicule pole" and these poles were raised to shame someone who owed a debt to a chief. For three years, this original Dzunuk'wa figure faced down the beach toward the owner's in-laws, who had not paid a marriage debt. When the in-laws honored the debt, the pole was pivoted to face the water. To acknowledge the payment of the debt, the owner had carvings of shield-shaped coppers added to her head and hands, to represent wealth.

Bill Holm initially painted the Dzunuk'wa figure’s entire body black, based on the black and white historical photos that he was using for reference. But based on later analysis of Emily Carr's colored image, Holm has come to believe the body of the original sculpture was painted red. The replica was changed from black to red in 2002, when it was placed outside the Burke. The head of the original sculpture is also in the Burke Museum's ethnology collections.

Posted by: MaryAnn Barron Wagner, Communications