The largest number of painted compositions photographed for the Image Recovery Project are those painted on bentwood boxes and chests.

These objects were widely traded along the Northwest Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bentwood boxes and chests were the containers of special things: the food preserved for winter survival, the regalia announcing rights and privileges, or a person’s body after death. Plain and watertight bentwood boxes were also used for steaming and boiling food.

Many bentwood boxes were considered treasures, and were passed on for generations. Some had special names and histories of their own, which were recounted at important occasions.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of known images painted on boxes, no two are exactly alike.
The largest number of painted compositions photographed for the Image Recovery Project are those painted on bentwood boxes and chests.

These objects were widely traded along the Northwest Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bentwood boxes and chests were the containers of special things: the food preserved for winter survival, the regalia announcing rights and privileges, or a person’s body after death. Plain and watertight bentwood boxes were also used for steaming and boiling food.

Many bentwood boxes were considered treasures, and were passed on for generations. Some had special names and histories of their own, which were recounted at important occasions.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of known images painted on boxes, no two are exactly alike.

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Bentwood boxes

Ninstints Village, mid 19th century

CHIN
UBC Museum of Anthropology

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Large bentwood boxes and chests were, and are, made from a single straight-grained plank of red cedar, or sometimes yellow cedar.

The plank is finished with adzes (a special carving tool) and knives, and was traditionally smoothed with sandstone or sharkhide. Specialized "kerfs" or grooves are then carved in three places. The kerfs allow the board to be steamed and bent to form a box with symmetrical sides.

The final corner, as well as a fitted base, are expertly joined and fastened with pegs or spruce root lacing. The resulting container is watertight.

The Northwest Coast painter’s palette was, and still is, composed of three main colours: black, red, and blue-green. All these colours can be seen on the box shown here.

Black is the primary colour used to create the framework or outline of the image. It was made from lignite, graphite, magnetite or various kinds of charcoal.

Red appears most often as the colour giving vitality to the painting. It is used to represent inner details such as the mouth, ears, or body parts. Red was made from ochres (minerals) containing the pigment hematite.

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Large bentwood boxes and chests were, and are, made from a single straight-grained plank of red cedar, or sometimes yellow cedar.

The plank is finished with adzes (a special carving tool) and knives, and was traditionally smoothed with sandstone or sharkhide. Specialized "kerfs" or grooves are then carved in three places. The kerfs allow the board to be steamed and bent to form a box with symmetrical sides.

The final corner, as well as a fitted base, are expertly joined and fastened with pegs or spruce root lacing. The resulting container is watertight.

The Northwest Coast painter’s palette was, and still is, composed of three main colours: black, red, and blue-green. All these colours can be seen on the box shown here.

Black is the primary colour used to create the framework or outline of the image. It was made from lignite, graphite, magnetite or various kinds of charcoal.

Red appears most often as the colour giving vitality to the painting. It is used to represent inner details such as the mouth, ears, or body parts. Red was made from ochres (minerals) containing the pigment hematite.

With the advent of trade with Europeans, Chinese vermillion was readily adapted into Northwest Coast painting, either replacing the Red earth pigment or used along with it.

The third colour, blue-green, was used on cedar chests that were carved as well as painted. It was applied to the orbs of eyes and to other concave areas of the image.

Scientific analysis of Northwest Coast paintings is ongoing. By identifying native and trade pigments that are specific to certain times and places, we may uncover more clues about where and when particular artifacts were made.

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Painted bentwood box

Painted bentwood box, Haida, circa 1870

CHIN
UBC Museum of Anthropology

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


It is tempting to look at these paintings simply for their design or composition, as an artist’s play with line and shape. One can speculate that they represent the artist’s "signature" or the artist’s personal interpretation of an image or idea.

"Through the infrared photos, which react to heat rather than the conventional light spectrum, it becomes quite clear that the artist changed his mind numerous times during the painting process." (Lyle Wilson, 1992)
It is tempting to look at these paintings simply for their design or composition, as an artist’s play with line and shape. One can speculate that they represent the artist’s "signature" or the artist’s personal interpretation of an image or idea.

"Through the infrared photos, which react to heat rather than the conventional light spectrum, it becomes quite clear that the artist changed his mind numerous times during the painting process." (Lyle Wilson, 1992)

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Painted Box

Contemporary Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) painted box.

CHIN
UBC Museum of Anthropology

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Haïda box

Contemporary painting of the box Haïda

CHIN
UBC Museum of Anthropology

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


How may we begin to interpret the images painted on many of these bentwood boxes and chests?

Unlike some painted compositions, in which a specific creature - such as a Killerwhale - is easily identified, these images do not seem to represent an animal from nature.

Why do the designs on the front and back of boxes and chests look so alike? What is the "creature" depicted with its broad head and prominent eyes? When and how did this highly conventionalized image become established? And what does it mean ? The double-eyed creature is often shown on one side of the box or chest (usually considered the front), while the other side (the back) reveals a creature with two single eyes. Equally common are boxes with the single-eye heads on both sides. Still others are oriented toward the corner, which forms the central axis of the image.

Some scholars have linked the double-eyed creature to specific supernatural beings described in the histories and philosophies of the Northwest Coast people.

How may we begin to interpret the images painted on many of these bentwood boxes and chests?

Unlike some painted compositions, in which a specific creature - such as a Killerwhale - is easily identified, these images do not seem to represent an animal from nature.

Why do the designs on the front and back of boxes and chests look so alike? What is the "creature" depicted with its broad head and prominent eyes? When and how did this highly conventionalized image become established? And what does it mean ? The double-eyed creature is often shown on one side of the box or chest (usually considered the front), while the other side (the back) reveals a creature with two single eyes. Equally common are boxes with the single-eye heads on both sides. Still others are oriented toward the corner, which forms the central axis of the image.

Some scholars have linked the double-eyed creature to specific supernatural beings described in the histories and philosophies of the Northwest Coast people.

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Bentwood box

West Coast Tsimshian.

CHIN
UBC Museum of Anthropology

© 1997, Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Describe the image recovery project and how it is repatriating Haida art
  • Explain the importance of art to Haida culture, using the example of the bentwood box
  • Describe a contemporary viewpoint of the importance of Haida art and its repatriation

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