Unceded Territories: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun at the Museum of Anthropology

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun in his studio. Photo: Ken Mayer

When viewing the work of contemporary artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun for the first time, most people will feel a bit uncomfortable, which is exactly what the artist is hoping for. In the solo exhibition Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories, now on view at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, visitors come face to face with an artist who is often controversial, often provocative, but never boring.

Yuxweluptun is of Coast Salish/Okanagan descent. A graduate of Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the artist merges personal experiences with a political perspective, resulting in vivid works combining Indigenous iconography with Surrealism. A confirmed political activist, Yuxweluptun uses his art to express concerns ranging from environmental destruction to the struggles of Indigenous peoples.

Spanning the artist’s 30-year career, Unceded Territories features more than 60 drawings, paintings, clips of performance art, and a virtual-reality installation, including several works on loan from the national collection. The exhibition is also a homecoming of sorts for the Vancouver-based artist: more than twenty years ago, Yuxweluptun’s first solo show was presented at the University’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Killer Whale Has a Vision and Comes to Talk to me about Proximological Encroachments of Civilizations in the Oceans (2010), acrylic on canvas, 280 x 184 cm. Private collection. Photo: William Eakin, courtesy of Plug In Editions

“We thought it was timely to show his work,” said Karen Duffek, one of the exhibition curators, in an interview with NGC Magazine, “because of the events of the day: environmental issues, the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Idle No More, and grassroots movements addressing different global concerns. This is a way of getting that dialogue happening. A lot has changed in twenty years, and audiences have become more aware of the issues that his art addresses.”

Although not presented in a chronological or thematic manner, the exhibition is unified by Yuxweluptun’s strong messaging and iconic style. Some of the most memorable works are part of the artist’s “Super Predator” portrait series, featuring creatures that look like stylized monsters in business suits.

Yuxweluptun’s work often provokes a profound sadness over lost ways of life, lost ways of seeing the world, and lost ways of relating to the land. Killer Whale has a Vision and Comes to Talk to Me about Proximological Encroachments of Civilizations in the Oceans (2010), for example, depicts a stylized man in conversation with a killer whale. Are they greeting one another? Imploring one another? Simply listening to one another? The painting encourages introspection on the relationships between humans, animals and the natural world.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (1990), acrylic on canvas, 142.3 x 226.1 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 2012. Photo © NGC

Despite its serious subject matter and underlying concerns, however, Yuxweluptun’s work also displays a wry sense of humour. It is hard not to smile when reading titles such as I’m Having a Bad Colonial Day (2001) or The Universe is So Big, the Whiteman Keeps Me on My Reservation (1987). It is also humour that points to the ridiculous — as in Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky (1990), recently on display as part of the 2014 Shine a Light Canadian biennial at the National Gallery which depicts scientists trying to patch up a hole in the ozone, while an abstract figure looks on.

Ovoids often appear in Yuxweluptun’s work, and several of these are on view in Unceded Territories, including Yellow Ovoid (2014) and Caution! You Are Now Entering a Free State of Mind Zone (2000). Although ovoids are a frequent feature of Northwest Coast design, these are non-pictorial compositions serving, as Yuxweluptun himself has noted, to express issues such as self-determination, self-government, social conditions and Indigenous philosophy.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Yellow Ovoid (2014), acrylic on canvas, 175.3 x 205.7 cm. Collection of the artist. Photo: Ken Mayer

The artist’s presence is felt throughout the exhibition. Just outside the entrance, for example, visitors are greeted with a tightly framed video of Yuxweluptun, espousing his passion for art, for the world, and for specific social and political issues.

“I am a modernist. I have to deal with hardcore issues that natives have to deal with,” Yuxweluptun told NGC Magazine. “I’m here to uncover everything. To show things for what they are.”

Visitors discovering Yuxweluptun for the first time will likely be surprised by the diversity of the artist’s work and impressed by its thematic coherence. They may also be outraged or inspired by his political and social messages, perhaps amused by his humour, and even shocked by his anger. But no one will come away unmoved.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories is on view until October 16, 2016 at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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