Reid reduced

Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian by Maria Tippett (Random House), 336 pages, $39.95 cloth. Rating: NN.

Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian by Maria Tippett (Random House), 336 pages, $39.95 cloth. Rating: NN

Rating: NN

Maria Tippett is first out of the gate with her bio of renowned Haida artist Bill Reid. It covers the bases, delivering a readable, informative text about the artist’s life and work (Reid died of Parkinson’s disease in 1998), but it’s a cranky, limited first read of the man. Tippett’s subtitle – The Making Of An Indian – identifies the theme of her study, and it’s obvious that she perceives Reid as something of a charlatan. The inconsistencies in his story about his relationship to his Haida ancestry are seen as opportunistic, as are his collaborations with other artists and his use of assistants in his large-scale carvings.

As she tells it, he got way more than he gave credit for.

The book nonetheless reveals the complexity of the artist’s tussle with art and race politics – as well as with depression and a debilitating illness. But there was also the identity thing, and in his case a mother who married out, turned her back on her Haida background and raised her children as whites.

There was the art world to contend with, too. Tippett’s essential contribution is her candid account of the role played by the Canadian art establishment in Reid’s rise to fame, and her examination of white attitudes to contemporary native art, which Reid did indeed learn to exploit.

What’s missing is the story of Reid’s relationship with the Haida community.

Obviously, it was fraught, and its omission, especially given the title of the book, is striking.

Bill Reid was a mixed-race artist who lived his entire life in the white world but made a choice to “become Indian” as an adult. Not an easy thing, and not one for which Tippett cuts him any slack .

Susan Crean is the author of The Laughing One: A Journey To Emily Carr (HarperFlamingo).

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