Renwick’s lens captures native identity

Kitimatian Arthur Renwick could spend eight straight hours drawing a leather jacket. The lines so crisp, the shading so perfect, someone could almost reach in and pick it off the page. It was award-winning super-realism.

Arthur Renwick’s photographs will be on exhibition inside the O Zone celebration site during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Photo by Matthew Hoekstra

Kitimatian Arthur Renwick could spend eight straight hours drawing a leather jacket. The lines so crisp, the shading so perfect, someone could almost reach in and pick it off the page. It was award-winning super-realism.

Then he had an epiphany. “I thought, why don’t I just take a f—ing picture?”

Marshall McLuhan be damned, for Renwick the message was more important than the medium. He switched his major at Emily Carr to photography and completed a master’s degree in fine arts at Concordia University, specializing in photography.

His work has largely centred on First Nations people, their history and heritage, without ignoring important identity issues and the accompanying politics.

Last year, he set out to create an impressive photographic portrait series that faces First Nations’ identity head on.

Opening last month at Richmond Art Gallery, Mask is 16 larger-than-life portraits of First Nations people making faces at Renwick’s Hasselblad lens.

“When you stand close to them they actually have this interesting effect where they become very confrontational, they become intimidating,” said Renwick, 44. “It’s hard to stand close to them for a long period of time because they’re unblinkingly staring at you constantly.”

Offering inspiration for Renwick’s project was Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian, a collection of early photographs of American Indian culture that continue to influence the image of Indians in popular culture today.

At the same time, his brother started successfully selling carved masks and Renwick pondered the relationship between the mask, the lens and a history of First Nations. Before snapping the portraits for the exhibition, he asked his subjects to gesture towards that history.

Identity is something Renwick struggled with himself growing up in Kitimat, spending part of his time on the reserve. He grew up close to his brother—they were a year apart—and had different fathers. Renwick’s being Scottish and his brother’s being native, they were treated differently.

“Everywhere we went, I was allowed to walk through the door, he wasn’t, because of the way he looked, in certain situations.”

Today, Renwick lives in Toronto and teaches at the University of Guelph. He returns to Kitimat each summer to visit family and friends.