Photo: Sarah Whitlam
by Yasmine Shemesh
It’s a warm spring day and bright light is streaming through the windows of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s East Vancouver studio, dancing upon the colourfully painted canvases propped up against the walls. Yuxweluptun is leaning forward in a chair and rolling up his T-shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo. It’s an image from his painting Night In A Salish Longhouse— a sacred spirit drummer — inked onto his arm by his friend and fellow artist, Corey Bulpitt.
“I’ve kind of become one of my own humanoids in my own painting,” he grins, slowly scanning his eyes over the lines etched on his skin. It’s a statement that, though uttered casually, is truly defining of the artist. The bond between Yuxweluptun and his work goes beyond the surface of the skin; it’s something that ventures further than a person and his creative outlet. Yuxweluptun and his art are very much entwined at the core.
With a career than spans more than 40 years, Yuxweluptun has made a distinctive imprint in the world of contemporary art through his searing and sometimes controversial work. His Coast Salish and Okanagan heredity is a fundamental component of his craft, in which he vividly melds traditional iconography and modernist styles with polemic representations of the ongoing struggles of First Nations people. Subject matter like colonial suppression, land rights, and environmental degradation provoke a difficult yet exceedingly important conversation that reflects Yuxweluptun’s unapologetically caustic views — convictions that stem from battles he has fought since birth.
Yuxweluptun was born in Kamloops in 1957. Due to segregation laws at the time, his mother was forced to deliver in a separate hospital for First Nations women. As a young boy, he was sent to a residential school — a systemic tragedy that reaches back through generations. Yuxweluptun was there from kindergarten to grade three, when laws were changed, allowing First Nations people to live off the reservation and attend public schools. “To me, the residential school was like throwing a stick of dynamite into somebody’s culture and then you get to go pick up the scraps of what’s left of your identity,” Yuxweluptun says. “I lost my language at residential school. My dad lost it. My mother lost it. My grandmother lost it. There was this loss of being. I was in a Longhouse and they were talking their own language and I’m sitting there and it was very —” He pauses. “Sometimes I get very depressed about not having language. It’s very hard to think of what colonialism means and how it can destroy somebody’s culture.”
Yuxweluptun doesn’t shy from administering a tongue-lashing to the Canadian government, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment. His concern for the natural world runs parallel to both his heritage and his character as a self-proclaimed “tree hugger.” Clear-cutting, pipelines, and the consumption of natural resources, he insists, are debilitating an already fragile system.
“I grew up with songbirds when I was a kid,” he recalls, his voice wistful. “And in the last couple of years, I went up to the Okanagan and I woke up and I realized how quiet it had gotten. When I was a kid, five o’clock in the morning the sun would come up and the whole valley on the reserve would chirp of songbirds. I knew what it meant and when I went there recently it was quiet. Silent. What are we doing as human beings?”
For Yuxweluptun, art offers a means to congruently document these issues and provide a commentary. “To me, that’s part of my job as an artist. To be a part of the social fabric of life and record history in a way that is possible,” he says.
The manner in which Yuxweluptun achieves this produces an inimitable aesthetic where, stylistically, he plays with the abstract — applying humanness to the metaphysical and adding a melting effect to tangible terrain (the latter, a nod to surrealist Salvador Dalí). The visual integration of more formal Northwest Coast designs assist to illustrate a spiritual understanding that conveys a “real” and “lived” experience.
“Modernism painting was a way of dealing with this stuff traditionalism didn’t allow for,” Yuxweluptun explains. More traditional forms of First Nations art, he maintains, “did not allow the dealing with the modernity of colonialism.” But his crusade is armed with a sharp wit.
Yuxweluptun leans back in his chair and motions to the wooden easel behind him holding a large canvas. Against a royal blue background are four men in suits, their faces masked and their mouths filled with pointed teeth, twisted in sneers. The painting, titled Fish Farmers They Have Sea Lice, is part of his Super Predator series that depicts corporate CEOs, bank cartel, and oil barons as dangerous beasts, jaws and all. A visual concept that is indeed “nasty,” he smirks, “but it’s funny.”
Another painting, Red Man Watching White Man Trying To Fix Hole In Sky, casts a satirical light onto the destruction and loss of land. In it, two men outfitted in lab coats, clutching a withered piece of sky and balancing on an arm that’s pierced with junk, reach upwards to repair a gaping tear in the blue. The ground beneath them is barren; a nearby mountain is emblazoned with spirits, whose faces are warped in pain. To the side, a “red man” observes in horror. He is striking in a rainbow of tones, built from formlines (a Northwest Coast two-dimensional style) and ovoids (egg-shaped forms), but see-through — invisible.
Art was always a means of expression for Yuxwelptun, a gift that was bestowed to him naturally. He began carving when he was just five years old and later gained an interest in modern painting when he became part of the public education system. He’d spend stretches of time at the local library with his father, engrossing himself in the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Michelangelo, getting acquainted with various definitions of what art could be. In 1983, Yuxweluptun graduated with an honours degree in painting from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. “My interest became in painting in a modern way and seeing things that was a very interesting way of presenting my work,” he says. “I seem to make symbolism come to life and, more or less, they become new symbols in new formats and they become very surreal.”
The nonfigurative nature of Yuxweluptun’s work exercises his right to have an existential thought. “I can relay things in a different way other than on a mask or a drum or a regalia or a totem pole,” he warns. This is exhibited prominently in a style that he calls “ovoidism,” where he uses the hollowness of the ovoid shape to make its own statement — a deconstructed presentation that recalls the dismantling objective of residential school. “I liked the idea of what it could represent,” he says of the form.
Through his life experiences and innovation, Yuxweluptun has played a vital role in shifting the perspective of what modern First Nations art can be. He is certain to not leave the value of traditionalism behind, instead utilizing it to cultivate a fresh and paramount discourse. And although his brilliance has been exhibited at prestigious spaces such as The National Gallery of Canada, the first true retrospective of his life’s work, as well as his first major solo exhibition in Canada in 20 years, will open this month at The Museum of Anthropology. Comprised primarily of his paintings and drawings, Unceded Territories will present a survey of Yuxweluptun’s most significant pieces over the last four decades, alongside the provocative timeline that exists within them.
“I think I’ve taken a look at the world and I’ll take my run at it,” he says. “It’s just fun. That’s for history to decide later on where they’ll place me. The history book may have room for an Indigenous person.”