Robert Charles Davidson, CM (also called Guud San Glans, meaning “Eagle of the Dawn" in the Haida language), artist (born on 4 November 1946 in Hydaburg, Alaska). Of Haida and Tlingit descent, Robert Davidson is a highly respected painter, master carver and printmaker. In his long artistic career, he has expanded the boundaries of Northwest Coast image and design in increasingly complex and unconventional serigraphs, jewellery and sculpture. His work has been displayed across Canada, including at the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of History, as well as internationally. Davidson was appointed an Officer to the Order of Canada in 1996 and was promoted to Member in 2022. (See also Northwest Coast Indigenous Art in Canada.)
Early Life and Education
Robert Davidson was born into an artistic family. He is the great-grandson and heir to the legacy of Haida artist, Charlie Edenshaw. His younger brother Reg Davidson is also an artist, as was their father, Claude Davidson. Robert first learned carving from his grandfather, Robert Davidson, Sr.
Born in Alaska, Davidson was raised in the Haida village of Masset, British Columbia. He stayed there until moving to Vancouver to attend high school. In 1966, he apprenticed to Bill Reid and the next year followed him to the Vancouver School of Art. While a student, Davidson became an able instructor at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Native Art in Ksan, Hazelton, British Columbia. He secured a grant to carve the 12m Bear Mother pole, his first, and the first totem pole to be carved and erected on Haida Gwaii in living memory of Haida Elders.
In his more than 50-year artistic career, Robert Davidson has had an ongoing commitment to the continuity of Haida culture. His work has brought both national and international attention to Haida art.
In 1967, Davidson participated in the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. The pavilion was created by First Nations artists from across Canada. It shared difficult realities with those who attended, including discussions of education of Indigenous children in Canada (see also Residential Schools in Canada).
In 1984, Davidson's three monumental totem poles, The Three Watchmen, erected in the Maclean Hunter Building, Toronto, reflected the artist's deep personal commitment to innovative art, and to the evolving culture of the Haida people. In 1984, a large bronze Frog was commissioned for PepsiCo's sculpture garden in Purchase, New York.
Raven Bringing Light to the World was another large bronze sculpture commissioned for what is now the Canadian Museum of History in 1986. That same year, a second PepsiCo commission resulted in a three-pole grouping, Three Variations of Killer Whale Myth.
A retrospective of his long and distinguished career was celebrated in a 1993 exhibition, Robert Davidson, Eagle of the Dawn. The exhibition travelled from the Vancouver Art Gallery to the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History).
In 2004, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia organized the exhibition, Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge. It included 30 of Davidson’s works and toured from 2005 to 2007.
Dance and Music
In 1980, Robert Davidson co-founded the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a contemporary dance troupe, with his brother, Reg Davidson. The Davidson brothers performed many songs and dances, taught to them by their grandmother, Florence Edenshaw Davidson. Robert and Reg also created masks and ceremonial objects used in their performances. The dance troupe continues to perform at ceremonies in Haida Gwaii.
Robert Davidson is a founding member of the Haida Gwaii Singers Society. The group aims to protect and promote Haida songs and culture.
Director Charles Wilkinson explored Robert Davidson’s art and life in the documentary, Haida Modern. The film premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2019.
Awards and Honours
Robert Davidson has been awarded several awards and honours, including:
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire) for Art and Culture, 1995.
- Order of British Columbia, 1995.
- Officer, Order of Canada, 1996. (Promoted to Member in 2022.)
- Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal, 2002.
- Vancouver Arts Award, 2005.
- British Columbia Aboriginal Art Lifetime Achievement Award, 2007.
- City of Surrey’s Civic Treasure Award, 2008.
- Governor General’s Award, Visual and Media Arts, 2010.
- Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement, 2010.
- Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2012.