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Indigenous B.C. artist creates COVID-19 mask in Northwest Coast style

Click to play video 'First Nations artist creates COVID-19 mask' First Nations artist creates COVID-19 mask
WATCH: A B.C. First Nations artist is following in the footsteps of his ancestors, creating an indigenous mask of the COVID-19 pandemic. Linda Aylesworth reports – Jan 21, 2021

We’ve heard a lot about masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, but never like this.

Indigenous B.C. multimedia artist David Neel has created a carved mask in the Northwest Coast style to symbolize the pandemic.

“It’s probably the largest event in any of our lifetimes,” Neel told Global News.

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“As it grew in magnitude and the impact became wider, I realized I had to do a piece about it.”

The mask depicts a black-painted face with flared nostrils and barred teeth. It also features red protrusions that call to mind the oft-depicted protein spikes on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

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As a carver, Neel’s work often incorporates traditional designs and techniques with contemporary ideas. His style has not always been well received.

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Born to a carving family in Vancouver Island’s Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, he moved to Alberta and lost touch with his B.C. family as a child.

Years later, working as a photographer in Texas, he saw a Kwakwaka’wakw mask in a museum in Fort Worth.

Read more: New program aims to identify authentic First Nations art, made in B.C.

“It was by my great, great grandfather, and I realized immediately that it was by my family, I just instinctually knew,” he said.

Within months he had moved to Vancouver and was apprenticing with a pair of traditional Northwest Coast-style carvers.

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As he learned more about his culture and the art, Neel began developing his own style which mixed traditional and modern motifs.

“I realized that many of the old pieces were dealing with topics and issues and people of the day, so I started to do that kind of work on my own,” he said.

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That mixture produced masks symbolizing oil spills, clear cuts and even nuclear disaster.

“A lot of people criticized me, both curators and art professionals and even some of the artists. They said that isn’t traditional, that isn’t what northwest coast artists do, and contemporary work wasn’t suitable for artists such as myself.”

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Thirty-three years later, things have changed and it is not uncommon for Northwest Coast artists to blend contemporary and traditional work.

“I think the freedom of expression that Northwest Coast native artists have has been misunderstood, we have a greater range of expression, and we’re seeing that manifested today, which I think is wonderful, we didn’t have that when I was a young artist,” he said.

“The times have caught up with me.”

But if you’re hoping to see Neel’s piece in person you’re likely out of luck.

The work, which he said took more than six months to produce, is now in a private collection in Victoria.