Unceded Territories at MOA is powerful and political

On May 10, the opening of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's Unceded Territories exhibit was held with an audience of approximately 1,800 in attendance. The opening marked what is evidently hoped to be a moment of profound significance to the artistic, native and activist communities of Vancouver, as well as a demonstration of the amassed impressiveness of four decades of powerful artistic practice displayed in one place.

The night began with most of the immense crowd bypassing the overpriced wine and beer to make a beeline for the main room of the museum where everyone was pushed shoulder to shoulder in an attempt to get closer to the podium on the right side.

"In the twenty years since that exhibition and particularly in the last few years, Canadian society and anthropology has undergone huge changes," said Anthony Shelton in his opening comments, "But Yuxweluptun’s message and vision has been clear and constant. It would almost have been unimaginable twenty years ago to foresee an exhibition like this taking place in an anthropology museum. Today we take political decisions and try to disinvest ourselves for our historical legacy, which is inconceivable that such an exhibition should not be curated in such a hypocritical environment as this. We are proud and we are excited to present this major show of your work."

Shelton also observed above the background chatter of people coming inside that it was, "a cause for celebration that today’s opening coincides with the government of Canada’s official adoption of the UN’s declaration of the rights of indigenous people."

When Mr. Yuxweluptun took to the stand, it was to excited cheers followed by a swift silence. Even when struggling to see over a large crowd, his presence was palpable and his voice instantly commanded attention.

"This journey started," he said in a calm, deep voice, "a long time ago in residential school. I was a witness. I was there. So many thoughtful children died there and I wanted to remember them. There was a lot of things that I lost." He was evidently struggling through emotion and though sparing, his words were powerful. The silence was punctuated by many in the audience similarly trying to hold back tears. "My friend spoke to me tonight. I couldn’t understand because I lost that language."

Yuxweluptun spoke about his decision to go to public school when it was made legal, and the exposure this gave him to the great artists of Europe. Through this and his understanding of native art, he described his journey to becoming, as he put it, "a masked dancer," in a spiritual journey that was evidently rife with pain.

"I had a pain in my heart that wouldn’t go away. It was a sorrowful feeling of watching the planet die." With this he continued on to a cause that is evident throughout many of his works, the environment, "I don’t want my children to wake up to oil spilled on the West Coast. I want all of you to come together and stop oil pipelines from coming through these territories."

His statements were met with almost unanimous cheers and applause. Yuxweluptun's eloquence and strength made his words powerful and affecting. He is evidently a man of certain conviction, who says what he means and knows to be right, regardless of popularity or controversy.

"It is time to change the name of British Columbia to our traditional territories of all first nations. You are not looking after this land. This is our land. We are the protectors. Every native person born on sovereignty of being is the caretaker. It is their responsibility. Don’t ask us to sign anything. I want our chief to put down the pen and say let’s make a new deal. Lets share this land fairly. No usufructuary right. I don’t need our aboriginal people to be usufructed every day under colonial rule. If we are going to United Nations and Canada to sign the declaration then I expect them to live up to it."

This final proclamation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an audacious one and was what truly set the exhibition apart from many others. Whereas some displays ask a viewer to passively interpret their works with a sense of distance and removal, suddenly Yuxweluptun's show became a political movement, and every viewer a participant in it. Pins saying things like, "rename BC" filled bowls at the tables where people talked, and posters were for sale in the gift shop alongside a book of his work.

Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer is surrounded by canvases of immense size and sporting a wide, beautiful array of colours. Yuxweluptun's works at times invoke the surreal landscapes of Salvador Dali, but with the very distinct and inventive use of Native American styles.

There is a very clear evolution to his works, but always with a full understanding of the cause that motivated them to be made. Each piece, no matter the medium, feels fully realized and unique, while managing to be both aesthetically beautiful and intellectually rich. It was very easy to see why these works are so coveted and expensive.

The show is a powerful demonstration of an artist's thriving legacy and influence. From the opening statements, to the immense crowd and long line of people looking to get autographs and photos from the artist himself, there was the strong sense that something important was taking place. The paintings are tied to just causes and a moral certainty which we, as an audience, are sadly only now truly starting to listen to and do something about.

In his closing comments, Yuxweluptun said, "I’m not always angry, but I do get mad at the world and when I do, I take my frustrations out on making paintings for the world."

Yuxweluptun's paintings can be seen at the Museum of Anthropology until October 16th. More can be learned about his campaign to change British Columbia's name at renamebc.ca.