In Night Walker, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun depicts an ancestral spirit to represent the notion of transformation that is central to Salish mythologies. The creature is a hybrid of a human form with an animal head (a ceremonial mask, perhaps) and hollowed-out limbs implanted with ovoid shapes. Supernatural figures call up both the stories of the past but also stand as a cry for present forces to subvert persisting colonial destruction in order to protect ancestral territories.
When Yuxweluptun rose to prominence in the 1990s, his work was frequently described by art writers as “surreal.” He took exception to this, insisting that his work had to do more with Indigenous West Coast art practices and Coast Salish cosmology than with the European surrealist movement of the twentieth century. “Native West Coast art has always been surreal,” Yuxweluptun states, “it gets really strange to watch your own ancestral land being destroyed and smothered and choked and spit on.”
|The Artist; Mark Loria Gallery, Victoria, Canada.
Throughout the course of his critically acclaimed artistic career, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun has created aesthetically striking and polemical works that foreground contemporary Indigenous environmental, economic and social issues. Influential as both a contemporary artist and activist, Yuxweluptun is most known for mythic paintings of colonised and devastated landscapes peopled by flat, hollowed-out figures and floating ovoid abstractions. His work merges traditional Indigenous iconography of the Pacific Northwest Coast with a distinctly de-colonial and modernist approach to history and landscape painting, with particular subversion of the legacy of Canada’s Group of Seven. Suffused with both humour and existentialism, Yuxweluptun’s art bears witness to colonial history and directly confronts complacency. His work presents a complex picture of an immoral universe in which we are all implicated. His paintings merge Indigenous and non-Indigenous artistic styles in order to present a complex picture of colonial histories, environmental destruction, and indigenous futures.
Born in 1957 to Indigenous activist parents, Yuxweluptun grew up attending aboriginal advocacy meetings, waving signs at demonstrations, and mailing out copies of the province’s first aboriginal newspaper The Native Voice. His father belonged to the Cowichan Salish from southern Vancouver Island and he was a founder of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and vice-president of the North American Native Brotherhood. His mother was from the Okanagan nation from the interior of the province and she was an executive director of the Indian Homemakers’ Association of British Columbia. The artist’s earliest formal education was at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This early and continued exposure to widespread injustice and racism informs his engaged, playful, and often disturbing work.
Coast Salish cultural traditions infuse his work and life. Yuxweluptun means “man of many masks,” a name given to the artist during his initiation into the Sxwaixwe Society at the age of fourteen. Despite his parents’ desire for him to become a politician, Yuxweluptun declared his intention to be an artist and enrolled in the Fine Art program at Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and Design, graduating in 1983. There, he broke with the conventions of Indigenous artistic traditions and developed his signature style based on a “deliberate act of reciprocal appropriation.” His paintings provide important commentary on the way Indigenous identity has been constructed from outsider perspectives.
Yuxweluptun has an extensive international exhibition history of over 25 solo exhibitions. In 2016, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia mounted a major 30-year survey of his work, titled Unceded Territories. Yuxweluptun has participated in more than 24 pivotal group exhibitions at venues such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Banff Centre for the Arts, National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, SITE Santa Fe 2018, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
He has received numerous grants and awards, including the Vancouver Institute for the Visual Arts Award in 1998, an Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Fellowship in 2013, and an honorary doctorate from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2019.
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s works can be found in various collections and museums worldwide. Some of the notable collections include the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
Today, he lives and works on unceded Coast Salish territories in Vancouver, British Columbia.