Bentwood Boxes

Box

No. 37733, Large Box/Chest

Haida

Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada

Cedar

H: 58 cm, L: 112 cm, W: 68 cm

Collected by Charles Newcombe for Stewart Culin of the University of PennsylvaniaMuseum of Anthropology and Archaeology

 

With its rich colors and bold design, this Haida chest is visually captivating. Its consistent symmetry and sheer size alone would be impressive, yet to take the chest at face value is to miss the array of complexities hidden within. This chest is a classic example of a bent-corner box, a style of box- and chest-making distinctive to the NorthwestCoast. Bent-corner boxes and chests are most notable for their complex construction, which involved steaming a single piece of wood until it could be bent into a rectangle to form the body of the chest. The finished chest would have only two seams: the final corner of the walls (which was sewn together with thick twine or secured with pegs), and one where the base was attached. These chests were watertight and even pest-proof, with precisely fitted lids to prevent even the smallest mouse from getting into the precious content inside.

While alike in their construction, bentwood boxes ranged in size from small containers to large chests according to their varied functions. Smaller boxes contained food, oil, or personal items. Large chests had an array of functions, from containing a shaman’s sacred objects, to housing the chief’s prized regalia, such as Chilkat blankets or ermine frontlets. Some larger chests were created expressly for ceremonial purposes, equipped with hinged lids to be used as props in theatrical performances. During such a ceremony, the boxes assisted in the disappearance of an actor, like modern magic tricks[1]. Whatever the purpose of this bent-corner chest was, its construction offered unsurpassed security for its contents.

Apart from the technical skill involved in creating the form of a bent-corner chest, a great deal of craftsmanship was required in the decoration. Chests such as this had a detailed process for designing and implementing the forms covering the exterior walls. First, a design would be drawn up on a template. These templates were only one half of the completed design; they would then be mirrored on the opposite half of the surface to maintain perfect symmetry. Just like the Chilkat robes. Then, the box would be painted and sometimes carved in shallow relief. Primary forms were usually black, while secondary forms were most often red. Tertiary forms could be a variety of colors, such as yellow or blue-green. In the case of this chest, the tertiary forms were painted with a red cross-hatching pattern, which was viewed as a separate color from red. After painting the chest, the artist would then carve away the unpainted surfaces to create a three-dimensional relief. Many are only painted and not carved. On a painted box, the high reliefs were always painted, and the unpainted spaces were always in lower relief. The sequence of painting before carving can sometimes be seen in accidently un-carved, unpainted spaces[2]. The artist of this chest overlooked just such a space directly below the cheeks, to the lateral sides of the hands on the posterior side. While technically an oversight, these small imperfections offer invaluable detail into the process of creating a bent-corner chest.

While we have clues to the creation of this chest, the symbolic significance of the design is more difficult to discern. In his acquisition notes, Charles Newcombe described the chest as “kagan,” a Haida word that simultaneously means mouse/rat and evil spirit[3]. Given the stylized nature of Northwest Coast art, however, a certain reading of the animal represented is usually impossible. Haida artists frequently reduced animals to their most basic forms, and even these forms were often highly stylized. Furthermore, artists occasionally deconstructed imagery to fit the shape upon which the animal is being placed. The animal represented on this chest can be called an “expansive design,”[4] meaning that the animal is abstracted and rearranged, but the important anatomical features are still present and in a naturally occurring order. For example, the eyes of the animal are above the mouth, which is above the hands; however, the other features of the animal are distorted beyond recognition, instead replaced with various ovoid and U-shaped forms. Given the few features presented clearly, ref/the pattern still seems unreadable as a mouse/rat creature. Instead, the design is reminiscent of a beaver motif, with the large vertical panels in the lower center representing the ?token large front teeth or perhaps the long, flat beaver tail. The split tongue coming through the mouth is also brings beaver teeth to mind, but in a less overt way. Interestingly, there is also a bit of killer whale symbolism at play, particularly in the two forms in the upper center. These both take the shape of a killer whale dorsal fin, complete with prominent blowholes, which are traditionally placed on the dorsal fin instead of the body of the whale in Haida designs.

While a variety of different animal motifs are present on this chest, this by no means implies a confused design. An important part of symbol ambiguity in chest design rises from the potlatch tradition, where valuable items are exchanged between different clans. A member of one clan may not want a chest overtly displaying a different clan’s crest; in these instances, an ambiguous design would be more favorable. Moreover, perhaps the designs on chests were not meant to be read literally at all. One description by Barbeau says the carvings are not meant to be taken as crests, but rather as something “sa.debisest,” meaning “to butterfly,” or loosely translated, “to beautify” the boxes[5]. If this is the case, one can see how the given space of the chest would be the prevailing compositional factor over realistic representation[6].

Similarly to the design, the history of this chest also involves a bit of mystery. Acquisition notes trace the chest back to the John Wanamaker Expedition of 1900, but its precise origin is unclear. On this journey, Charles Newcombe traveled the NorthwestCoast in search of rare and enchanting objects to send back to his patron, Stewart Culin at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology.  In a letter to Culin dated October 1900, Newcombe lists the objects he collected from Masset, including number sixty-two, a “large chest and lid.” Beyond Newcombe’s acquisition, however, the history of the chest becomes hazier. The archives and catalogue history of the chest attribute it to Tom Price, a Haida carver who lived from 1857-1927 in Skidegate, another town on the island of Haida Gwaii. In contrast, in 2009, Robin Wright wrote an article in American Indian Art Magazine[7] claiming the chest was the work of Zacherias Nicholas, alternatively known as the “Master of the Chicago Settee.” Wright’s article overlooks the posterior face of the chest, however, and in doing so misses one of the key, unique stylistic features of the design. Both faces are nearly alike, with only minor differences in the shape of the hands. Like many chests, human-like hands are featured on the anterior face, while the posterior face has clawed hands with long fingers and ovoid shapes for wrists[8]. Unlike most ovoids in Haida art, which feature elongated eyes and smooth concave form lines, these ovoids have teeth lining their concave edges. Toothed ovoids are a characteristic piece of Tom Price’s designs, thus making him the more likely artist[9].

With exquisite patterns and elusive symbolism, the art of the Haida is almost hypnotic to behold. As much as we know about forms and histories, there will always be an element of Haida art that escapes us. While we strive to understand Haida design completely, let us not forget these objects were created with the intent of ambiguity; they were never meant to be fully comprehended. Instead of fighting the uncertainty surrounding this chest, embrace the mystery and let it be all the more alluring.

 

-Whitney Kite


[1] Wright, Robin, Northern Haida Master Carvers, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 137-138.

[2] Holm, Bill, The Box of Daylight, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 70.

[3] Jordan Lachler, Dictionary of Alaskan Haida, (Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2010) ,176.

[4] Holm, Bill, Northwest Coast Indian Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965), 12.

[5] Wright, Northern Haida Master Carvers, 138.

[6] Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art, 72.

[7] Wright, Robin. “Zacherias and the Chicago Settee: Connecting the Masterpiece to the Master.” American Indian Art Magazine, Winter 2009, 68-73.

[8] Holm, The Box of Daylight, 71.

[9] Glatthaar, Trisha Corliss, “Tom Price (c. 1860-1927), The Art and Style of a Haida Artist” (Masters thesis,  University of British Columbia, 1970), 43.

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