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 Mungo Martin  (1884 - 1962)

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Lived/Active: British Columbia / Canada      Known for: carver of masks, totems

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Detail of Centennial Totem at Maritime Museum, Vancouver 100 feet tall, red cedar carved by Mungo Martin, assisted by Henry Hunt and David Martin
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Mungo Martin (Chief NaKePenkim) was one of the Northwest Coast's most significant artists and mentors, a man who greatly contributed to the preservation of traditional Kwakwaka'wakw culture, and instigated its resurgence.

Martin restored poles and house posts for the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology and for the Provincial Museum of British Columbia, and was chief carver at the latter institution's Thunderbird Park. He also replicated and created new feast dishes, masks, dance screens and other objects of utilitarian and ceremonial uses, and recorded many of the oral histories, traditions and 400 songs he knew. In addition, he carved a half-scale replica of the house in which he was born, and to dedicate it, held the first public potlatch since the governmental potlatch* (see notes below) ban of 1889 was rescinded, a ban for which some Native people were imprisoned. The Canada Council posthumously awarded Martin a medal.

From the time of his birth, Martin was exposed to cultural rituals and traditions of his people. At a young age he learned the basic skills of designing, carving, and painting in the Northwest Coast traditional style. Martin attended residential school only briefly, and developed his artistic skills under the guidance of his mentor and master carver Charlie James (Yakudlas). Mungo Martin was one of the first traditional artists to work in a variety of Northwest Coast sculptural styles.

His work has influenced a new generation of artists, including his son-in-law, the late Henry Hunt, and grandsons Tony and Richard Hunt, notable artists in their own rights. Mungo Martin also recorded a wealth of material on film and audiotape concerning traditional technologies, family and cultural traditions, and ceremonial songs.

Martin restored and made duplicates of totem poles from Haida and Tshimshian villages, and carved in his own Kwakwaka'wakw style during his years of work for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

For thousands of years, Northwest Coast artists have been erecting totems, carving and painting canoes and paddles, making masks for dancers, making blankets, hats, drums, rattles, jewelry and feast bowls to be used by their families, plus elaborate pieces to be given in appreciation to guests who bore witness to important family occasions at potlatches. In 1884, this art was suppressed as the ceremonies and gift giving associated with the potlatches were banned by the Canadian Government. The ban wasn't lifted until 1951. Within some families, there were few or no artists to continue the tradition. Now this art and culture has achieved international recognition.

"First Nations people on the coast didn't have a written language, so they communicated through dance, oral stories and totems", has said Leslie McGarry, Director of Culture and Community relations at the Victoria Native Friendship Center and great granddaughter of Chief Mungo Martin. "The totem here maintains that culture".

To Native Americans a totem pole is a family history book. It is passed down from generation to generation as a way to preserve their heritage. But due to the mild and rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest coast, the totems rarely survived unaided for more than a few generations. After a few generations, refurbishing of the totem pole was necessary for its survival. Another way the tribe lost a lot of information was because of a severe case of small pox hitting the tribe during the 1860's.

After the original placement of the totem pole, they were left alone, except for one or two feasts that were held every two years. The totems were never repaired nor transplanted, as to do any kind of restoration would require the same ritual preparation and ceremonial festivities as in the initial raising. When a pole finally fell over, they were allowed to decay naturally or they could be cut up for firewood. Although a few totems still stand, much of the history has been passed down orally. In many cases, only cracked and crumbling pieces of poles remain today. Much of the knowledge of carving totem poles was lost and the Haida legacy was nearly destroyed.

Now people have become more interested in preserving this ancient art form. During the 1990s, inspired by persistent messages from Native American and First Nation individuals, cultural and political organizations, many museums and art galleries began to change the way they portrayed Native American material and sacred culture. An early example of this consultation in cooperation was the construction in 1954 of the ceremonial house of Chief Nakapenkum (Mungo Martin) in Thunderbird Park, adjacent to the British Columbia Provincial Museum (now the Royal British Columbia Museum) in Victoria.

Chief Mungo Martin exercised an inherited prerogative when he built the house on the museum property, modeled on a prototype that stood in for Rupert village in the late 19th- century. The museum no only recognized Mungo Martin's title to the ceremonial house, but also agreed to use it in accordance with his instructions. His successor currently holds the same authority, and his written permission must be obtained by any tribal group or outside agency that wants to use the house for ceremonial, political, cultural, or educational purposes.

Totem poles are both being reconstructed and protected. In the 1960's a major movement towards totem pole preservation began. Mungo Martin, from the Kwakiutl tribe, and Bill Reid from the Haida, were two pioneers in organizing the first restoration parties. Martin was hired as resident artist by the Provincial Museum in Victoria in 1952, to share his exceptional carving and painting skills with the world. He began by building a Kwak waka'wakw style Big House in the museum's Thunderbird Park and holding a three-day potlatch to celebrate.

As a First Nation artist, Mungo Martin was commissioned by the city of Victoria to carve a "mighty totem that could be seen from land sea & air... an inspiring landmark for our city". The business community, local volunteers, and worldwide supporters embraced the dream. A fund raising drive resulted in the sale of 10,000 shares, at 50 cents apiece. Notable shareholders included Bing Crosby, Gracie Fields, and Sir Winston Churchill. Chief Mungo Martin and fellow carvers David Martin and Henry Hunt spent 6 months creating the world's largest totem pole from a hand picked cedar that towered 160 feet. In June 1956, with thousands of Victorians, First Nations' leaders, and Canadian civic and provincial leaders in attendance, the pole was raised. The pole, which is still the word's tallest, has looked out proudly over the city for 44 years.

An example of one of the Mungo Martin's masks is 'Killer Whale Mask'. Carved from red cedar, it has an articulated lower jaw, pectoral fins, dorsal fin and flukes. Its surface is painted. When the appropriate string is pulled, the dorsal fin lifts up to assume a right angle to the body. Objects of this form are usually worn attached to the back of dancers who bend forward at the hips so that the mask appears in a horizontal plane.

In the past, masks and regalia were completely hidden away and used only with authority of the chief during a potlatch. Then, in a period beginning in the early 20th century, they were used frequently in public demonstrations and performances. Over the past century the display of Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonial artifacts has reached a point where it is now common to see them in public places, including commercial galleries, airports, and museums. Traditional items are often represented in art for sale: for example, masks, rattles, and button blankets. Since artists in Kwakwaka'wakw society are very prominent in their own communities, and many have achieved international renown, they have taken the lead in the respectful display of ceremonial regalia in commercial contexts.

Interested in paintings by Native artists of British Columbia's Kwak waka'wakw peoples, an immigrant Hungarian art dealer named Gyula Mayer recognized their talent and in 1957 distributed paper, paint and brushes to the coastal Indian communities. Numerous pieces were painted between 1958 and 1964 and, until first exhibited in 1986, The Kwagiutl Collection remained virtually unknown to the art world and anthropologist alike. Indeed, it could be said that it is the 'missing link' between the infrequent paintings of Mungo Martin and the rush of contemporary Indian paintings and prints that found popularity in the early 1970s. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Kwagiutl Collection is that the artists had little if any formal training.

Excelling in three-dimensional sculpture, Kwagiutl artists when working in paint traditionally worked in flat design, using brush and pigment to embellish canoes, paddles house fronts, boxes, drums, hats, masks and other objects. Most of these paintings portrayed the crests of their owners, often declaring the owner's lineage, wealth and status; other paintings had mythical or spiritual meanings. Probably very few painted designs had ornamental value alone, although a love of decoration is shown by its use on almost every available surface.

The first important paintings were done by Mungo Martin, who produced a series of watercolors during a brief period of hospitalization in Vancouver. These initial paintings were purchased by the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, where he was working at the time. In 1952, while working for the British Columbia Provincial Museum, he produced a second set of paintings depicting crest figures, which were purchased by that museum.

It was inevitable that other graphic artists would adopt this new means of expression, especially as a commercial market developed for this art. Anthropologist Wilson Duff wrote in 1965, "The painting of Indian designs on paper has enjoyed a recent revival among Indian artists." Many developed their own distinctive style of graphic presentation, and can be considered forerunners of contemporary Northwest Coast graphic art. The medium of painting on paper allowed certain innovations to occur in Kwagiutl art. A flat piece of paper offered a freer design field than an object whose entire surface had to be embellished with a particular crest animal. In addition, the fact that paper was a new, non-traditional medium freed artists from some of the cultural restrictions that would have been more closely connected with carving ceremonial and crest objects.

Additional information about Mungo Martin may be found in Phil Nyutten's book, Totem Carvers.

*Notes re potlatch ceremonies:
A 'potlatch' was a ceremonial feast of the natives of the NW coast of North America, entailing the public distribution of property. The word 'potlatch' comes from Chinook jargon, a trade pidgin formerly used along the coast. It means 'to give' and came to designate a ceremony common to peoples on the Northwest Coast and parts of the Interior. The potlatch ceremony marks important occasions in the lives of the Kwakwa_ka_&wakw: the naming of children, marriage, transferring rights and privileges and mourning the dead. If a man aspired to be a leader, he had to give a potlatch whenever possible, and the death of even a distant relative provided an excuse to celebrate and distribute gifts. Guests witnessing the event are given gifts. The more gifts distributed, the higher the status achieved by the potlatch giver. It is a time for pride, and a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the family giving the potlatch.

The host and his relatives lavishly distributed gifts to invited guests, who were expected to accept any gifts offered with the understanding that at a future time they were to reciprocate in kind. Gifts distributed included such things as foodstuffs, copper plates, and goat's hair blankets, as well as less tangible things such as names, songs, dances, and crests. In return, the host was accorded prestige and status in direct proportion to his expenditures. The potlatch ceremony also involved dancing, feasting, and ritual boasting, often lasting for several days. Various theories have been proposed by anthropologists to account for this ritual. While the emphasis varies from group to group and through time, the potlatch was a fundamental means of circulating foodstuffs and other goods amongst groups, validating status positions, and establishing and maintaining warfare and defense alliances.

Before the coming of the whites and the establishment of stores, and in particular, Hudson's Bay Company trading posts, these were more modest celebrations with food and craft items given as gifts. Contact with Euroamerican populations in the early 19th century brought about a massive depopulation among aboriginal northwest coast societies. At the same time, the growth of the fur trade led to an influx of industrially manufactured trade goods. Trading posts and the work afforded by canneries, sawmills and the like gave rise to potlatches in which chiefs tried to outdo their rivals by their generosity, giving away hundreds of blankets, and even at times furniture, canoes and motor boats. Under these conditions, the potlatch came to serve as a means by which some validated often-tenuous claims of high rank, and led to impoverishment of tribes and in some case destruction of property.

Although they were few and far between, rivalry potlatches were sometimes held. This occurred when people made a claim to song, dance or perhaps a fishing spot that belonged to someone else. Each claimant would try to give away or destroy more property than his rival, thus establishing his right to a contested privilege or position.

Opposition to potlatches began to grow with the coming of missionaries and government agents. Frustration over unsuccessful attempts to 'civilize' the people of the potlatch led officials, teachers, and missionaries to pressure governments into enacting legislation prohibiting the ceremonies. This led both the U.S. and Canadian governments to outlaw the practice beginning in 1884. The tribes reacted by potlatching in more and more remote locations, and finally the law banning potlatches was repealed in 1951.




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