It’s been a busy year for Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, UVic’s second Audain Professor in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest. In addition to his academic work here in the Visual Arts department, he recently completed and unveiled “Abundance Fenced”, a 43-metre-long steel sculpture commissioned by the City of Vancouver, and published Old Growth, a collection of his art from 1970 to the early 2000s.
Following the teaching period of inaugural Audain Professor, Rebecca Belmore, Yahgulanaas is in a good position to see the potential in this mix of the professional and the academic—which he describes as “a rare, needed and timely opportunity for Canadian society to reconsider its relationship to Indigeneity.”
At the welcoming reception held for him in November 2011, Yahgulanaas spoke eloquently of Michael Audain and UVic being on the “leading edge” of the relationship between “our people.” Noting that “history is unfolding on a day-to-day basis,” Yahgulanaas feels it’s positions like this one which will help us move forward together. “I want to acknowledge the institution, the faculty and Michael Audain for supporting this effort,” he said.
Nearing completion of his academic year, Yahgulanaas has some insightful questions about how the Audain Professorship could develop, as well as its position within the Faculty of Fine Arts and UVic itself. “I am aware that this a new program, and wonder what the mid- and long-term aspirations are?,” he asks. “How does UVic intend to measure success or failure? Does UVic see this as a growth opportunity within a larger academic community? What conversations are occurring—or not—amongst educational professionals in other similar-sized institutions?”
“These questions are relevant given the appalling statistics that are evidence of a wide-spread systematic failure to recognize the humanity and dignity of Indigenous People’s in the Canadian experience,” he continues. “I imagine there are numerous efforts across Canada to engage in this area, and some will be known by their commitment and success in this much-neglected field. Where does UVic wish to be seen?”
Accepting that the Audain Professorship is still a relatively new position in what he describes as a “much-neglected but profoundly important social, political, Constitutional and economically pregnant sphere,” Yahgulanaas feels these essential questions still need to be addressed. “Plainly said, a program operating without a clear strategic anchor is less desirable in that it creates a false notion of accomplishment, occupies the available space and prevents more rigorous strategies from developing.”
With his class of third-year students, Yahgulanaas provided personalized mentoring by encouraging students to answer the key question, “Why should anyone care about your artistic practice?” He personally critiqued, engaged in one-on-one sessions and challenged students to stretch themselves in accordance with their artistic passions. “I have attempted to inform the students that successful artistic practice—i.e., where there is audience, market and career—is one in which the artist is fully engaged in a community and must anticipate the needs of others,” he explains.
With that in mind, Yahgulanaas had his classes develop portfolios, which were then objectively reviewed by a professional in the field, meaning students now know how to create and maintain their own professional-image CV. He also developed a cross-discipline relationship by having his class interviewed by Department of Writing students, with an aim of creating an artist’s statement. “This provided practical skills for both writer as journalist and artist as object.”
As a practicing contemporary artist, Yahgulanaas clearly understands the issue of financial limitations, but he still believes there is room for growth with the position. “If UVic views this program as part of a calculated move to develop excellence in the field, strategies to increase financial contributions—combined with thoughtful curriculum objectives over the mid- and long-term—would appear to be needed.”