Against the Current honours orca

Showing at Mahon Hall through Sunday

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If anyone was in need further convincing that killer whales are an impressive species and local orcas need immediate help if they are to survive, the multi-media show underway at Mahon Hall leaves absolutely no doubt.

Against the Current: Orca + Salmon is a moving homage to the southern resident killer whale population, whose three member pods combined are down to just 73 animals. While the Salt Spring Arts Council show celebrates the orca for its many interesting attributes —  the importance of community and family, its communication abilities, its sheer size — this is no gushing tribute to a favourite charismatic mammal. It is a sombre and thoughtful exhibition that mixes scientific material with artistic expression, and a powerful statement about what we stand to lose if we continue to fail this population. 

Serious art pieces by some of the region’s most accomplished creators stand beside more whimsical, but no less committed, contributions by local children. These include a stream of brightly coloured salmon that swim across an entire wall, with students and gallery visitors working on stencils created by Coast Salish artist and educator Quentin Harris. Glazed ceramic whale tails created by Salt Spring Centre School students under the guidance of Tracy Harrison are another lovely addition. 

But perhaps most moving are the family trees for J, K and L pods made from individual whale drawings collaged onto nautical charts. The project made by show curator Jane MacKenzie with Karin Beviere and Fulford Elementary students gives the viewer an instant understanding of each pod group, its family branches and members shown with their different sizes and ages. These family trees bring home how few of the whales there actually are, and with ghosted versions of the recently deceased, their vulnerability is magnified.

This project also includes the scientific names and the nicknames for each individual, a motif that is repeated throughout the show. This action means something more than anthropomorphizing. Award-wining author Mark Leiren-Young has argued we should know the SRKW by the adoption names given to them by The Whale Museum, as this creates an invitation to care. 

“Jane Goodall changed the world by naming the animals she studied,” he observes.

Marine environment activist Alexandra Morton, as quoted in exhibition materials, meanwhile warns, “If we lose the southern residents, it will be the first extinction where every individual’s name was known.”

Paul Burke is another artist to demonstrate the importance of naming. An impressive sculptural work on the stage in painted wood shows just the backs and dorsal fins of a mother whale and calf, as if they are skimming along the surface of the water. The pair is identified as Tsuchi and Tofino. 

The kid-friendly exhibition includes majestic orca bone and teeth specimens and documentary footage running in the rear room. 

The show continues to Sunday, Feb. 23. See ssartscouncil.com for details about adult and family art workshops happening at the hall this weekend.

For more on this story, see the Feb. 19, 2020 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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