Activism Art

Some issues we have witnessed in Canada with regard to Aboriginal Rights leave me with great disappointment. Sadly, as I grow into a more aware citizen, I realize there are parts of being a Canadian I am deeply embarrassed by. I am embarrassed to live in a country that is founded on disrespect for others and stolen land. I would like to think Canadians uphold a universally recognized stereotype of being compassionate, kind, and respectful for a reason… I am troubled to learn why this is so incredibly inaccurate.
It is possible individual people are generally quite decent, so perhaps there is hope for maintaining this stereotype. To truly achieve this though, Canadians must reconsider who is leading them, who is threatening this stereotype of a charming character. With a profit driven corporate mindset we have allowed them to physically destroy our pristine northern landscape, and emotionally destroy the spirit of Canadians, especially the First Nations people. One way to become aware of the true horrific realities of the government relations with First Nations’ people is to observe those protesting it.
Often protests arise in the face of such events which threaten Aboriginal Rights, and these can be expressed through an array of methods, from picket lines, to public speeches, and through artistic expression. One way to highlight the atrocious behaviour of this government is through protest, and a non-violent branch of this would be protest art. Artist Lawrence Yuxweluptun, will be the focus of this paper, as he chooses art as his outlet for protest against the collective traumas which have plagued First Nations people over the last century.
A collective trauma affects an alarming number of individuals together as a group, often violating their rights as human beings. In Canada, the most troubling culprits of such trauma has always been our very own government, with the victims being the hundreds of thousands of First Nations people who call this country home. Historically there unfortunately is a rather long list of instances which would fall into the category of collective trauma for First Nations people. Violations of treaties, neglect for the land rights, and the cultural genocide which was residential schools are a few that come to mind.
As a First Nations person in Canada one is and should always be entitled to a specific list of Aboriginal Rights, in addition of course to the human rights that everybody is entitled to. Aboriginal rights are a specific set of rights which have been created to allow people of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis heritage to secure their right to live as their ancestors did. Aboriginal rights are important as they make it possible for First Nations people to protect and pass down their culture and customs. These rights are divided into two sections, generic and specific. I will focus on generic, as those are more applicable to a group rather than an individual. The generic rights which have been fought for by Lawrence Yuxwelptun include: The right to the land, the right to practise one’s own culture and customs including language and religion, and the right to enter treaties.
Canadian artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is of Coast Sailish heritage. He studied at the Emily Carr Art Institute, and graduated in 1983. Yuxwelupton’s strategy is to “ document and promote change in the contemporary indigenous history exploring political environmental and cultural issues.” (Lawrence Yuxwelupton)
Yuxwelupton’s style is a blend of traditional Coast Sailish Cosmology, surrealism with his use of bright colours, and the traditional ovid which is distinctive of Northwest Coast First Nations art. His work is usually either abstract or landscape surrealism both which encompass his heritage as well as his own personal style, and often the theme is a bold political statement. An ovid is a rounded rectangle with a convex top, often used in Haida art. I will examine a few of Yuxwelupton’s pieces, which is relevant to this discussion as it addresses the issue of the right to enter treaties and colonist suppression of First Nations culture. Yuxwelupton is not a fan of Canada’s origin myths, such as the country was carved out of the wilderness, (Slideshow) which would completely negate the rich history which belongs to the First Nations people. In his own words, with regard to his process for his abstract work: “I have fun making them, there is an intellectual process of balance, design, colour, that comes out of just being. I like all the things about creating a neo-Native gaze. When you’re so busy being oppressed you have to take the time out to enjoy your own life. So it’s not always a bad colonial day. I’m having a good Indian day when I’m making. A good Indian day is a good day to be, to create.” (Slideshow) In his landscape pieces, Yuxwelupton often includes specific species of trees, as he explained in an interview with Christina Ritchie, “I would rather raise my kids in a different way and talk to them about the world in a different way. I want to talk to them about how sacred the trees are.” (Slideshow)
This attitude reflects his right to practice his own culture and customs, which is a constant battle, in the past the right to one’s culture was compromised in atrocious ways. I am referring to the cultural genocide which was the Residential School System. Yuxwelupton responds to this with a piece called Portrait of a Residential School Girl, 2013, a large image of a young girl which was featured at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The focus of this painting is a young girl with a bold black paint on her face and a halo surrounding her head. This young lady is sporting a very short blunt haircut, which is symbolic in many ways. Some believe this blunt cut hairstyle represents the young girl’s heritage being chopped away from her. “ The birds flying out of the girl’s hair symbolizes the loss of spirituality and value that the hair once had when it was uncut. Directly it is the hair that gets cut, but indirectly it takes her identity away as well. However, Portrait of a Residential School Girl, 2013 (Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun) speaks truth about identity.” (EmilyK) It is possible the halo surrounding the young girls head, which consists of traditional aboriginal birds represents the uncomfortable forced dwelling between indigenous culture and Christianity. “Her halo (a motif borrowed from Christian art) also bears traditional indigenous patterning, a hybrid iconographic flourish suggesting the ambiguous spiritual hinterland between Christian and traditional belief systems, where many aboriginal Canadians now find themselves.”(Stirring Exhibit) Yuxwelupton rejects Christianity and expresses his rejection through his work.
British Columbia is mostly unceceded land, meaning that the right to treaties has been completely neglected. This is a massive issue for the entire population of British Columbia, for many reasons. First, it is incredibly unethical to ignore the fact that First Nation’s people have a right to enter treaties. In British Columbia there is a great lack of land treaties, and this needs to be corrected with fair negotiations of treaties or fair compensated for land used for the benefit of others (ie most of Vancouver). Second, it seems to take a tragic event to get the community to support Aboriginal Rights to the Land, (for example the support on Burnaby Mountain against the Kinder Morgan Project) when circumstances arise which threaten the integrity of the land. It is possible people of British Columbia who are non- natives actually depend on the First Nations people to pull through and save the environment when there are nasty corporations after the land.
Yuxwelupton’s art protests the lack of treaties, as well as the lack of fairness within certain recent treaties. This brings me to the Nisga’a Treaty which was completed in the year 2000, an arrangement between the Nisga’a Nation in BC, and the British Columbia government. This treaty was long overdue, and caused anxiety and frustration for those waiting for it to be complete. Most people affected by it believe it to be much too little too late. Lawrence Yuxwelupton would be one of these people. In 1996, Yuxelupton created The Impending Nisga’a Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change.
This piece by Lawernce Yuxwelupton is an example of his woodland style work, which in the words of Maxine Noel conveys the true inspiration of the style; “ the meaning and inspiration behind each area’s artwork is the same: to protect cultural traditions and keep the societal uniqueness of the Native community alive. Woodland artwork is characteristically the most contemporary form of Native art, with many of the community’s most prominent artists originating from the area. Modern styles and bold colours are used to illustrate ancient legends, creating a powerful contrast between the two cultural polarities.” (Noel)
As a protest artist, Yuxwelupton offers the his creative skills as a voice to communicate his critical view of the Nisga’a’ Deal , a deal which was clearly not made with the best intentions of the First Nations people in mind. Using bold colours to communicate a bold opinion, Yuxwelupton is not afraid to speak his mind through loud symbolism. The painting is set in a devastated landscape, a small mountain in the background stands decorated with bright symbols representing First Nation’s culture staying attached to the land. In the foreground there are three figures, all painted using ovids. It is clear the two on the right are aboriginal as they have devastated looks on their faces, the blue figure in the middle looks especially frustrated. His tongue sticking out, and his hands up in surrender, he looks quite upset. The figure to his right is also distraught looking, however this figure appears more angry. He is pointing to the land which appears to have First Nations symbols melting off the ground as though they are being washed away. This must be from the water which is drowning the figure lying on the ground. The figure on the far left is clearly not with the other two, this one instead has a smug look on his face, he is clearly someone who has just signed the Nisga’a Deal. He is leaving the other two, briefcase in hand, to dwell on their devastation. This whole piece comes together to tell the government they have wronged the First Nations people with this deal, they have exploited the land and those who hold it so closely to their hearts. It also reaches First Nation’s people, to show them this deal has not given them what they deserve, we should feel empathy for the figures in the middle and right, we should feel angry, mirroring the emotions shown. This type of activism is important for our evolving generations, as it supplements protests and is a valuable tool for instigating a conversation. A headline reading: “The impending Nisga’a Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change” might get the public’s attention, however, I believe Yuxwelupton’s approach is much more effective in demanding our attention.
Protest art can be very complex, it can deal with a very controversial subject and commemorate the struggles of people fighting for what they believe in. Lawrence Yuxwelupton’s Fucking Creeps They’re Environmental Terrorists, 2013 speaks to the oil companies exploiting the land for a profit. It is a protest against the companies, and it is a plea for a conversation between Natives and non-Natives, to address the issues regarding the oil companies exploiting the land.
This image shows three figures, two in black business suits with ties sporting them emblem of major gas companies, and one with the head of a pipe line spewing black sludgy oil from his head and hands. This piece is very melancholy, the sky is a dark blue and the clouds a dirty yellow grey. The figures are all thigh high in a pool of oil, probably a spill, each contributing to the mess rather than attempting to clean it. The mix of surrealism with traditional native iconography is evident in this piece, as the bodies are human and the masks are not.
Art of this genre, First Nations Protest Art, is incredibly important in the struggle to raise awareness of the battles being fought in the past and the present between the government and the aboriginal communities with regard to the violations of their aboriginal rights. Canada has the potential to be an amazing country which respects people as individuals and as groups. For this to be a reality, the concerns of people such as Lawrence Yuxwelupton need to be considered and addressed, by the government and by the “other” people living here. In order to achieve change, we must band together to stand up for what we believe to be the right thing, the Aboriginal Rights which are owed to the First Nations people must be respected. It is important to recognize the work done by artists such as Lawrence Yuxwelupton as “his art ultimately carries hope—if not for cultural recovery, then for spiritual emancipation.” (Slideshow)
Kelsey Gavin
Works Cited
Noel, Maxine. “The Arts.” Aboriginal Perspectives. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014. .
“Slideshow: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s Critical Canvases.” Canadian Art Slideshow Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptuns Critical Canvases Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014

K, Emily. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): VISUAL vs. PHYSICAL.” Web log post. N.p., n.d. Web.

“A Stirring Exhibit Explores the Cultural Fallout of Residential Schools.” The Globe and Mail. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2014. .

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