The wave of the contemporary art movement continues to sweep the entire world. Innovation forms the very basis of an art piece created in these times, irrespective of the setting it belongs to. An array of material, technology, disciplines and many other elements meet to be born as a work of art, which could be a sculpture, video art or sound installation, digital animation, canvas or paper.

Existing with this worldwide movement are a set of people who are clutching on to their indigenous traditions and practices. Canadian artist William White belongs to this coterie for whom traditions are sacrosanct. With his roots in the 10,000-year-old Raven clan of the Git-wil-gyoots tribe of British Columbia, Canada, White is determined to keep the legacy of his ancestors alive. So, he travels around his country conducting workshops, teaching students and spreading awareness about the exquisite weaving techniques his tribe evolved centuries ago. White is in town to participate in “Sanaugavut: Inuit Art from the Canadian Arctic” and “Power Cloths of the Commonwealth” going on at the National Museum and Crafts Museum respectively.

Visibly proud of his heritage, White declares, “I have dedicated my life to these weaving traditions. We don't know how close we are to extinction so I travel around my nation telling people about these traditions.” White creates beautiful dance aprons, leggings, regalia (costumes), headgears, purses, robes, armbands employing chilkat and Raven's tail weaving. For “Power Cloths of the Commonwealth” White has brought two tapestries woven by him in addition to a Chilkat blanket in merino wool, from the private collection of Marvin Wesley. White's family had presented it to Wesley, the head chief of their tribe. Chilkat blankets were woven by a select few using mountain goat wool and cedar bark. At the other forum, White had a workshop on the complex tradition of chilkat and weaving traditions that are specific to the tribes of the Tsimshian nation. Tsimshian are the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast whose communities are in British Columbia and Alaska, to name a few. While curves dominate the intricate Chilkat weaving, geometric shapes and designs are primary to Raven's tail weaving. And for their theme, White tells us, it could be anything, a popular folklore, a dream, or significant symbols of the tribe. When White began the journey 28 years ago, he wove only baskets and gradually moved on to robes, which are now his USP. “A Raven's tail robe takes me about five months, whereas Chilkat weaving could take about a year, that is, if I weave for 10 hours every day. The wool hangs from a panel and we weave it with our fingers. We use very fine mountain goat wool.”

A traditionalist to the core, White refrains from incorporating contemporary designs into his work. “I stick to the traditional colour scheme of black, white, blue, yellow and green for Chilkat and black, yellow and white for Raven's tail,” he states.

In what can be described as a major shift, White has taken to an art form that was the domain of the womenfolk of the tribe. “While men designed the pattern and painted on a wooden pattern board, women reproduced them on these textiles. That's why I teach only women because they are special and this art is theirs. We have a special place for women in our matrilineal society,” says White, who inherited this art from his aunt and relatives. “I had a vision which I consider to be a nod from above, following which I decided to train in it. My aunt was the last basket weaver and after learning from her, I went to every village in my country and taught them to weave. Today, every single village has a weaver,” says White, who has been invited to come again to India for a residency programme.


Call of the crafts October 8, 2010