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Remembering Beau Dick

the Great Whale Emerging Above the Horizon

By Chunbum Park, May 5 2024

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Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Inuit Weather Mask, 2015, Red cedar, acrylic, graphite, 30 x 30 x 19 inches

Great whales slowly and majestically emerge into view, penetrating the rooftop of the ocean and sensing the unfamiliar air above, different from the water. 

Beau Dick, whose name reminds me of the novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, translates to “big, great whale” in the Kwakw’ala language. Beau is making his presence felt at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in Tribeca. Dick, born in 1955, was a Kwakwaka'wakw (Musgamakw Dzawada'enuxw First Nation) artist. He passed away in 2017 due to a stroke. 

His art strikes the viewer as the incomprehensible and the outlying other… the angels and demons who have been rejected and discarded within a human-centric perspective… a direct yet metaphorical reflection of the immense discrimination, genocide, and injustices suffered by the First Nation People in Canada, the United States, and other regions of the globe.  The masks and the potential energy which cannot be made fully kinetic without being worn and performed, look eerily familiar within the human subconscious, like the Japanese Noh masks or the Western faces in the style of those found in James Ensor’s paintings. They are equally authentic and highly iconic originating as visions internal to the artist.

According to Candice Hopkins, Dick often carved out supernatural beings from his people’s mythology, including the Dzunuk’wa, who is the “wild woman of the woods,” and her counterpart, Bakwas, the “wild man of the woods.” The description of Dzunuk’wa particularly stood out to me as a Korean because she is a cannibal who plucks away disobedient children, just like the Korean tiger who does the same at night. I assume that this fear of the universe, the gods and the ancestors, and the fragile nature of goodness leads to humility and respect for the indigenous people. 

The story of his people’s encounter with the white man with a gun can be seen and felt in his carvings, such as “Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hok Hok” (2016), which represents a creature with a nose so long that it looks like an arquebus or a musket. Some of the masks somehow resemble a Westerner’s face, such as “Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Bookwus Ghost” (c. 2003), despite being titled differently. 


The great whale rises, penetrating the barrier of the ocean surface, discovering the air above, and concluding that there is a whole other world out there that continues beyond the top ceiling of the ocean. This, in an inverse metaphor, is the Westerners’ “discovery” of the Americas, where the First Nation People had already been residing. This also marked the paradigm shift of a complete, cataclysmic change into colonial oppression that the Indigenous People endured and triumphed over throughout the past several hundred years. And this metaphor, in its final inversion, is how Beau Dick discovers the world beyond the lies constructed by the Western people and society about colonialism and capitalism. 

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Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hok Hok, 2016, Red cedar, acrylic, cedar bark, feathers, 40 x 83 x 9 inches 

If Beau Dick were alive today, would he speak out against the cleverest kind of propaganda propagated by the Western governments and their proponents? Would he argue that the idea that Western countries are “free” and “democratic” shields them from any or most kinds of criticism and wrongdoing and dilutes radical action, including revolutionary movements? Similar sentiments have been echoed by artists such as Ai Weiwei. 

The failure of the Indigenous Peoples in rising and rebelling against the unjust stealing of their ancestors’ lands by the Western colonial powers is the clearest sign that… not only is the Western society also backed up by the brute force of the police and the military, but it also has the propaganda system of the news and the media that are well-entrenched and working flawlessly. A similar case is observed by Guy Debord in his 1967 book "The Society of the Spectacle," which is used to explain the failure of the working class revolt against the ruling class. 

The United States for example is a capitalist oligarchic republic run by wealthy elites… not a true democracy. Even the Athenian democracy was a farce because many of the people in Athens were slaves and could not vote as citizens. America is also plagued by the prison industrial complex that operates on modern-day slavery of prisoners working in factories for little to no pay. (Of course, the Western countries are still better off than the purely totalitarian countries like North Korea.)

How does an indigenous artist make sense of the contradiction that Western society and people impose on his own? They simultaneously take his people’s land and yet promise equality and freedom.  This constitutes an incomprehensible mind game and manipulation. Yet to counter their overwhelming force with force would be suicidal and futile. The answer may lie within Sigmund Freud’s idea of sublimation, which is the artistic and creative pursuit of transcending the difficulties and challenges of the day, whereby the creative process is a way of solving problems that one encounters. 

An artistic means of solving the problem would be the copper-breaking ceremony that Dick and others performed in the footsteps of the British Columbia legislature. Beau Dick stated, “In breaking this copper we confront the tyranny and oppression of a government who has forsaken human rights and turned its back on nature in the interests of the almighty dollar, and we act under our laws.”

Beau Dick created “art,” but it was not art in the traditional sense that is a Western construct. He created art that was meant to have no monetary value yet would be invaluable and culturally significant. In a bold defiance of capitalist market forces, the artist burned 40 of the masks he had previously exhibited, leaving only these masks as tangible remnants of his stand.

The great whale penetrates the ocean rooftop and finds an answer; Beau Dick finds the answer, too, through his art. The world beyond the lies of colonialism and capitalism… is his ancestral home… a society… and a people… that he would call his own… that he would call “our community” … where every person is cared for and respected not for their wealth and fame but for their intrinsic worth as human beings. 

This concept and love for “our community” is what I felt while working at a Puerto Rican community center in the Lower East Side. Everyone is connected and cherished as a member of the community… a part of a larger, extended family. 

Suppose the white man can brag about his guns, his territorial conquests, and his colossal accumulation of wealth but fails to take care of his kind, including the most wretched, the weak, and the sick and elderly. In that case, the indigenous person has nothing to envy of the white man. Western society, based on capitalist competition, never had or experienced the sense of a community in the sense that the indigenous people have had and continue to this day. 


In a final vision that Beau Dick gives me, I can sense a celebration within his community, where every person wears the mask that Dick created and performs true to the personality or the character that Dick envisioned and endowed to the masks. 


Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Towkwit Woman, 2000
Western red cedar, acrylic, horsehair, bone, 10 x 6 3/4 x 4 inches 

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Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Bookwus Ghost, c. 2003
Red cedar, acrylic, horsehair, cedar bark, feathers, chewing gum, 10 x 12 x 4 inches

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