Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is connected to the spiritual world of his heritage. The great Coast Salish painter from Kamloops, B.C. symbolizes the world around him and paints what it “feels like to be a Native” – to be relegated to the role of foreigner in your own land while possessing an inherent bond and interdependence with that very nature. He uses Coast Salish cosmology, Northwest Coast formal design elements like ovoids and formlines, and the western landscape tradition. The surrealist painter Max Ernst collected Northwest Coast art; now Lawrence Paul is borrowing from the Surrealists and Cubists, and maybe it’s appropriate for him to adopt those classical European styles to frame his denunciation – the legacies of colonialism and capitalism. He’s justly pissed off. The Coast Salish peoples have been in British Columbia since at least c. 9000 B.C. That’s over 10,000 years before James Cook unknowingly sailed past the straight of Juan de Fuca and entered Nootka Sound. As an artist he’s found a way to unfreeze traditions and record history. “Do you carve an Indian who’s gone to residential school kneeling down? 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 way, these are some of the things that you’d have to carve – and who would want to do that? […] But when I look at Guernica it gives me a woody.” When you get to know him he has a mischievous sense of humour. His poetic titles sound like Native American sayings or pronouncements from a fable: I Lost My Legend Downtown Last Night, The Universe is so Big, the White Man Keeps Me on My Reservation, or Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky. And he loves trees. The old red cedars from the Northwest Coast of Canada here are made up of feathers, porcupine quills, human heads, salmon-trout heads and other creatures; physically marked as belonging within the realm of the First Nations they also remind us of symbiotic relationships, the biosphere as a whole. So when we see a spirit being planting a seedling against a landscape of deforestation in the ink study for his painting The Protector, the duality of his faithfulness and message becomes clear. He addresses “the shit end of the stick,” land claims, clear cuts, oil spills, holes in the ozone layer, systemic racism, and the scandal which is the Indian Act. He also paints Salish figures dancing in firelit longhouses, native reason and native philosophy. Lawrence is Dancing in the Dark, vividly making sense of our dark past and current surroundings, for us and for them.
[Untitled (Ovoid Portrait) undated, ink on paper, collection of Michael O’Brian / Text by Shawn Dogimont]