“Of all the arts of which traces remain, that of the First Nations of the Northwest coast is certainly one of the greatest.”
These are the words spoken by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1974, at an exhibition of the work of Bill Reid, one of the best-known artists of his generation and a member of the Haida people, an Indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest.
The Haida community and its art also was an inspiration to another, more contemporary artist, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, inventor of a new graphic genre: “Haida manga.”
Formline: A distinct style
“Haida manga,” a somewhat incongruous term, describes a hybrid form of visual expression where the artist not only celebrates Haida cultural memory and merges it with Asian brush techniques, but also engages with the challenges facing all modern societies: conflict, war, the impact of human activity on the environment, climate change and intercultural relations.
Yahgulanaas brings to manga a visual and stylistic technique belonging to the cultures of the Pacific Northwest coast: the formline, or figurative line. The formline is a winding line painted in black that swells and contracts, outlining the contours of the picture’s subject.
The use of formline in mangas such as A Tale of Two Shamans (2001) and Red (a 2009 best-seller), also conveys Yahgulanaas’ unwavering belief that, beyond differences in Indigenous and Western ways of thinking, people of all backgrounds can find common ground in shared concerns.
Yahgulanaas was born in 1954 to a Scottish father and a Haida mother from a long line of artists, who brought prestige to Haida art over the course of the 19th century.
He is a descendant of the famous master sculptor and jeweller Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), the father of his great-grandmother, on his mother’s side. In his thirties, he asserted his dual heritage by adopting – alongside the surname inherited from his father – the name of his mother’s clan, “Yahgulanaas,” meaning those from the middle of the village, from the Raven moiety – Haida are divided into two matrilineal descendant groups, the Ravens and the Eagles.
Aware of the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, he strived from an early age to “play the edge between the neighbourhoods” and has clearly positioned himself at the bridge between two communities that are ignorant of, and even hostile toward, each other.
Like fellow Haida artist and activist Guujaaw (Gary Edenshaw), Yahgulanaas led a fierce struggle against the deforestation of the Haida Gwaii archipelago for many years, including the famous 40-day forest-road blockade on Lyell Island, in 1985.
The protest was a resounding success: The timber company backed down and eight years later, a national park was created, with agreements from both the British Columbian and federal governments.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Yahgulanaas used his talent to serve his communities, publishing comics denouncing logging, the impact of clear-cutting and the environmental risks posed by the movement of oil takers in the Hecate Strait, running between Haida Gwaii and the mainland.
His long years of activism, dedicated to protecting Haida land and the environment, have had a significant influence on his prolific work, which numbers in the thousands. Yahgulanaas is also a multimedia artist with a thriving imagination and a sculptor, creating both monumental works for public spaces and smaller pieces.
Haida manga, a hybrid genre
According to Yahgulanaas, the use of the term manga to describe the kind of images he creates was suggested to him by students who saw him as a mangaka, or manga artist, during a trip to Japan.
The name came at the right moment to define a new genre, blending a representational approach typical of Japanese manga with the Haida pictorial style, with touches of Chinese calligraphy, giving great fluidity of form to the lines contouring the panels, and opening up room for more creativity and freedom in storytelling.
He then coined the name “Haida manga.” The two terms, at once opposed and complementary, encompass several key themes close to his heart, relating to art, culture, politics and identity.
While Yahgulanaas is clearly proud of his roots, his approach is different from that of traditional Haida artists. A self-taught sketch artist and illustrator, he has mastered a vast range of techniques, including Chinese watercolour, which he learned in 1999 with Chinese painter Cai Ben Kwon. He also gleans inspiration from Japanese woodcuts of the ukiyo-e school – images from the floating world – and the manga tradition.
Yahgulanaas strives to go beyond traditional art practices with his hybrid visual art, which draws on several different traditions – Haida, Western, Chinese and Japanese, borrowing both techniques and specific forms of representation.
Beyond the schism of tradition and modernity
His stories come from the Haida oral tradition. A Tale of Two Shamans is a personal adaptation of a legend gathered in three local dialects by ethnologist John Swanton in 1900-1901.
Like that of a great number of Indigenous artists and intellectuals in the region, Yahgulanaas draws on the great classics of turn-of-the-century ethnology (including Franz Boas), which now constitute an inexhaustible source of information on the mythology of the societies of the Pacific Northwest coast.
The plot of Red (like many manga characters, the main character has red hair) is inspired by a true story from the distant past, handed down within the Yahgulanaas family. It tells the tale of a young man so blinded by his lust for revenge that he almost drags his community into a bloody war.
Yahgulanaas’ images are also inspired by visual documents and Haida artefacts.
Both stories are set against a backdrop of Haida Gwaii landscapes. Some scenes take place in traditional villages, with their rows of coastal houses before which stand heraldic and mortuary totem poles.
Some readers will easily spot the resemblance between the drawing of the burial box containing the body of the shaman and the artefact collected at Skedans by Charles Newcombe for the American Museum of Natural History, which bears a mountain goat symbol of one of its sides. The clothes and accessories worn by the protagonists are characteristic of “traditional” dress and indicate either the character’s role or social class.
Yahgulanaas also plays with different historical periods. The face of one male character, Elder, is obscured behind a large moustache, as was the style among Indigenous men of the Pacific Northwest coast at the end of the 19th century. One of the female characters, Jaada, wears a western-style dress and carries a satchel, whereas the shaman, Spirit Dangerous to Offend, appears as a bare-breasted young woman with large hoop earrings.
A genre suited to Haida traditions
According to Yahgulanaas, manga is better adapted to the narrative style and specific characteristics of Haida oral traditions than Western comics which, he argues, have a tendency to depict either good or bad protagonists. The characters described in Pacific Northwest coastal myths are highly complex. Take, for instance, the Raven, famed trickster and creator of the world and men, whose contradictory character is both generous and mean.
“ I use a unique blend of comic and traditional style to ask the reader to question pre-existing assumptions and fantasies about the People who produced the morally ambiguous narratives – about the Raven for instance.”
Duel stylistic reconfiguration
From an artistic perspective, Haida manga allows the artist to adapt a traditional style with canonical rules to another pictorial tradition while distancing himself from Western comic traditions through manga.
Yahgulanaas believes this dual stylistic reconfiguration opens up a new conceptual space, highlighting affinities between the different cultures of the North Pacific: those of the Pacific Northwest coast and those of East Asia.
The blending of the two styles is also a political statement, relegating European-American visual influences to the background, with their associations of colonialism and domination of Indigenous cultures:
“I was attracted to manga because it is not part of a colonial tradition […] and it is not linked to the colonization of our country. [Also,] manga has roots in the North Pacific, just like Haida art,” he explained.
“The black line becomes a prop for the characters to play with”
Yahgulanaas takes his experimentation and genre mixing to a new level, using curved formlines as outlines for his panels. This means that, according to the conventions of Pacific Northwest coastal art, the negative spaces created by the figurative black lines become positive spaces where the action takes place and the characters move.
Since positive space is the place where the story takes place, the formlines are part of the narrative itself. Sometimes a scene or a character – or part of their body – spills out of the frame, encroaching on another panel. The black line is also a prop for the characters to play with, what they grab, hang off, or lean over. It is transformed into part of the landscape. In Tale of the Two Shamans, it is the surface of the water where Elder rows his canoe. In Red, it is part of a tree or the edge of a forest, it traces the outline of a character and, in one instance, becomes a weapon, the bow that will kill Red, as if the bow were part of a whole.
Rather, it serves as a kind of visual metaphor or dialectic tool to juxtapose a Haida vision of the world with Western ways of seeing, when it comes to space-time, or the connections between the people in it and their relationship to the environment.
Yahgulanaas’ artistic approach goes against the grain of the Western comic tradition, with its white frames where space becomes time, structuring the narrative in a way that, for him, does not suit the Haida way of thinking.
He expressed this idea in picture form, in a comedic ink sketch titled In the Gutter (2011), which pokes fun at the way frames are used in Western comics, attributing political and historical meaning to these blank spaces.
For Yahgulanaas, filling empty spaces or frames with images and the “full” nature of the formlines (as opposed to the empty gutter) act as a kind of history lesson. The lines denounce the commonly accepted narrative that the land colonized by Europeans was empty space – terra nullius – when it was in fact inhabited by autonomous peoples governed by their own laws. A prime example of this way of thinking can be seen in Red.
With his Haida mangas, he has opened up an international dialogue. In Red, the assembly of images connected by the winding – and seemingly fragmented – formlines cannot truly be understood until the reader has reached the end of the book.
There, a double-page image reproduces a five-by-two-metre fresco, made up of 108 panels painted in watercolour, which inspired the manga.
When the mural is reconstructed, you can see a stylized image of a supernatural entity, or Haida motif (an animal figure, ancestor or social group). This stylized image is in line with canonical two-dimensional art from the Pacific Northwest coast – although bearing no relation to the plot – links all the panels and pages of the book.
Always happy to explain his work, Yahgulanaas emphasizes that the unexpected presence of the motif should raise our awareness of the various, divergent realities outside of our own world:
“The mural is a way of understanding how we are all connected to each other, and moving through the same space.”
This piece was published in collaboration with the blog of Terrain, a journal of anthropology and social sciences.