Coming Soon: Waterline

Waterline, Marianne Nicolson, 2015. Glass, wood, shell inlay, LED light, mechanism box with cover. Museum purchase, 2016.2a-c.

The Museum’s Department of Native American Art has acquired an important new work of sculpture by contemporary artist Marianne Nicolson. The work, entitled Waterline, will open to the public on July 27 in the Museum’s Arrington Gallery, and will be on view through November 25, 2018.

Nicolson is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations of British Columbia, Canada. This Pacific Northwest Native American culture is renowned for its stunning artistic traditions, including massive totem poles, architectural sculpture, transformation masks, and sacred clan regalia. Waterline draws upon these artistic roots. The sculpture consists of a large, glass box with glyphs and symbols etched into each panel. The form is derived from a traditional bentwood box, one of which is currently on view in the Museum’s Native American gallery. A mechanical device suspended from the ceiling moves a light slowly up and down within the box. The light casts shadows of the etched symbols—what Nicholson calls “shadow waters”—which slowly emerge from the box and rise up the walls, creating a panorama of killer whales, wolves, thunderbirds, and other creatures and symbols.

The work refers not only to sacred traditions, forms, and language, but to the contemporary problems of industrial encroachment, particularly onto sacred and life-sustaining waterways. Industrial structures now control the rise and fall of river-water levels, causing ancient pictographs on cliffs and river rocks to disappear under rising water, and then reemerge. Nicolson states,

… the work speaks to the relationship of industry and the land. It speaks of the submergence of Indigenous presence and histories, and attempts to make them visible. As audience to the work, viewers are implicated as their shadows are cast and visually included in this complex narrative as the gallery space is ‘flooded’ with light and imagery.

Nicolson’s training encompasses both traditional Kwakwaka’wakw forms and culture and Western European based art practice. She completed a bachelor of fine arts from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 1996, a masters in fine arts in 1999, a masters in linguistics and anthropology in 2005, and a Ph.D. in linguistics, anthropology, and art history in 2013 at the University of Victoria. She has exhibited her artwork locally, nationally, and internationally as a painter, photographer, and installation artist, and has written and published numerous essays and articles. Her practice engages with issues of Aboriginal histories and politics arising from a passionate involvement in cultural revitalization and sustainability.

In conjunction with this exhibition, the Museum is partnering with the Cahaba River Society to engage visitors in one of Alabama’s most important waterways.

Marianne Nicolson will give a talk on her work at the Birmingham Museum of Art Thursday, September 27.

Waterline has been made possible by the City of Birmingham and The Lydia Eustis Rogers Fund.