Haida Manga and Beyond

Reviewed by Emma Morgan-Thorp

This dense and gorgeous book is a republication of Levell’s 2016 Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: The Seriousness of Play (Black Dog Press), with a new foreword by Nobuhiro Kishigami (executive director, National Institute for the Humanities; professor, National Museum of Ethnology). An expanded introduction by Levell places greater emphasis on the concept of mischief in place of the earlier edition’s interest in play, with Levell asking: “What does mischief mean when applied to an artist’s practice?” (12). From the work of Marcel Duchamp to that of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Levell identifies the role of mischief in providing entertainment “while [being] simultaneously serious in its intent to disrupt the status quo, to unsettle dominant power relations, to transform and even reverse our cultural categories, our naturalized behaviours and norms” (12-13).


The book is divided into five sections. The first, aptly titled “Backstory,” provides a biography for Yahgulanaas, describing his lifetime of activism and turn to artistic practice. This section details his artistic lineage and his mixed heritage, influences, and inspirations as a means to introduce the concept of hybridity, a core preoccupation in Yahgulanaas’ oeuvre and, by extension, in Levell’s text. The second section, “Haida Goes Pop! Playing with Formlines,” delves into Yahgulanaas’s use of the comic form. Here we learn more about his creation, Haida manga, through which he “deliberately set out to circumvent the North American comic-aesthetic . . . and declare an elective affinity with manga and more generally the visual culture of the North Pacific” (42). Section three, “Cool Media: The Art of Telling Tales,” sees Levell dig deeper into Yahgulanaas’ influences and artistic lineages, and also describes an intended outcome of the artist’s use of accessible forms:


With his customary idealism, which is always tempered with a political accent, Yahgulanaas hopes that his graphic novels and artworks can foster a form of ‘conciliation’. Through their universal significations, they can help bridge the gap of cultural misunderstanding or the tendency we have to distance and dissociate ourselves from cultures and peoples whom we think of as ‘other’. (68)


The fourth and fifth sections, “Culturally Modified: Precious Metals, Cars and Crests” and “Visual Jazz: The Adaptability of Forms,” tackle the artist’s attentiveness to the Haida worldview as well as the rhythm, movement, and use of colour, collage, and light in Yahgulanaas’ works.


With attention to such crucial topics as art’s potential to overwrite colonial narratives and the role of the viewer as active participant, along with compelling passages on technique and form, Levell’s own wide-ranging art historical and critical interests reflect her subject’s, revealing Yahgulanaas as an artist with both a broad range of influences and diverse reach of his own. Mischief Making demonstrates not only a deep appreciation for Yahgulaanas’ breathtaking and provocative body of work, but also an incisive understanding of the role of art in the creation of political change.

This review “Haida Manga and Beyond” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 14 Oct. 2022. Web.

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