Ask Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun why he never pursued a traditional First Nations carving career and he’ll say, “I’m allergic to wood.” It’s true, but push the Coast Salish–Okanagan artist—who is famous for paintings that address land claims, clearcuts, oil spills, holes in the ozone layer, systemic racism, and the injustices of the Indian Act—and he’ll deliver the full and unexpurgated response.
“Do you carve an Indian who’s gone to residential school kneeling down?” he demands. “Do you carve a totem pole depicting an Indian being fucked up the ass by a priest? If you’re recording history in a traditional format, these are some of the things that you’d have to carve—and who would want to do that?” Then he adds, “There had to be a new way of recording history.”
Yuxweluptun’s art has found that new way. Over the past three decades, he has created an eloquent and utterly individual means of representing the legacies of colonialism and capitalism in what he calls “Superclearcut British Columbia”. The large, brilliantly hued, politically charged canvases for which he is best known, along with the works on paper in his new show at the Contemporary Art Gallery, demonstrate his distinctive form of image-making. He combines elements of European surrealism and landscape painting with the building blocks of classic Northwest Coast Native design: ovoids, U-forms, split U’s, chevrons, crescents, and the sinuous curves of the form line.
In Yuxweluptun’s art, mountains, trees, lakes, plateaus, celestial bodies, and the figures of indigenous people are built out of these basic design components. In one work, an etching titled Little Reservations in BC, a man stands on top of a tall pole, trying to make sense of his environment. “My style is the result of how I look at the world,” Yuxweluptun says simply. “I symbolize it.”
He is standing in the middle of his CAG show, looking around appraisingly. Titled Neo-Native Drawings and Other Works and running until May 16, the exhibit surveys his graphic production, from his student days in the 1980s to the present. Ink drawings, many of them studies for large paintings, predominate; they’re complemented by a selection of prints, watercolours, and pages from his sketchbooks. Neo-Native is Yuxweluptun’s term for his painting and drawing style. It’s a style that has earned him wide critical and curatorial acclaim and vaulted his art into public and private collections across Canada and beyond.
As he looks over his show, Yuxweluptun speaks angrily about environmental destruction, the undermining of Native fishing rights, and the decimation of the salmon fishery, which he believes are inextricably linked. “How do you record 600 million salmon brought down to 40 million?” he asks. “I am living in a time when what happened to the buffalo has happened to the salmon.” He insists that, just as American government policy in the 19th century dictated the near extermination of the buffalo to force Native Americans onto reservations, our federal and provincial policies deliberately enable overfishing, dam-building, and clearcut logging in watersheds, all destructive to once abundant fish stocks. “This is a province that put up dams without even putting up fish ladders,” he says. “Kill the salmon, starve the Indian.”
His tone is strident as he goes on to discuss “usufruct”, “extinguishment policy”, “annexation”, police brutality, the death of Frank Paul, Canada’s refusal to endorse a United Nations declaration of aboriginal rights, cultural genocide through residential schools, and the failure of contemporary public schools to meet the needs of Native children. “There is no ”˜we’ in this country,” he says, “It’s ”˜us’ and ”˜them’ .”
Still, his voice softens when he talks about the trees that appear in his work, and the different ways he has of depicting them. His most recent etching and a number of his ink drawings represent a range of tree species, their foliage variously symbolized by feathers, fingers, porcupine quills, and overlapping ovoids. “Yes, I am a tree hugger,” he says. “I love the Northwest Coast rainforest.” He talks about the delight of standing in the shade of an 800-year-old tree, watching an eagle land on one of its upper branches. “I try to make my work express what it feels like to be a Native.”
Yuxweluptun’s tone is also gentle when he points out the ink study for his painting The Protector. It depicts a tall, mask-faced entity planting a seedling against a backdrop of deforestation. “This is the spirit being that has to care for the land and nourish it back to health,” he says. He wants his art to convey, he says, the love he has for trees.
Equally affirmative are Yuxweluptun’s drawings of Salish figures dancing in firelit longhouses and his rare portraits of friends and colleagues. And, no, in case you’re wondering, there aren’t any images of priests sodomizing aboriginal children in this show. There is, however, a small ink drawing of a white man wearing a black shirt and clerical collar. Unlike the other portraits that surround it, with their allusions to Eagle and Raven, Wolf and Killer Whale, this person’s head is an empty balloon. “I couldn’t really put a face on the pedophile,” Yuxweluptun says, “so I just left it blank.”