One of a kind, this artist has too many bad colonial days and he WILL kill the Indian Act.
My Friend Lolly
If there is an artist out there who really has no fear of reprisal, t’is Lawrence Yuxweluptun Paul. Ask him why he paints and what inspires him, he tells you about the MMIWG inquiry, or he talks about his daughters. He’ll talk about the futility of land claims. Ask him about Canadian politics he can talk for hours on end without taking a break. You are at his studio in Vancouver, at his invitation. You are a captive audience.
He calls the Indian reserve a colonial concentration camp. He talks about the Canadian Prime Minister in no uncertain terms saying that he has no right to bring pipelines to the west coast, that HE should get rid of the apartheid system that is run by Indian chiefs under the authority of the Indian Act. He is telling Canadians to wake up and IF, IF they believe in true reconciliation, then you should “get off your fucking asses and kill the Indian Act”. Looking straight into my camera lens he fixes an eye on the Indigenous viewer and says, “Emancipate yourself!”
I have known Lawrence as a friend for many years. When I first migrated to the left coast we met at the NDN bar in Vancouver where the artists and poets gathered every Friday night. We became instant friends, I, a newspaper executive and he, on the rise in the world of modern art. Thirty-three years ago we were not yet known as Indigenous. We were just getting used to the “Aboriginal” label. Lawrence still calls himself a Native, as he did then in 1986. It was also around that time when he began his very public campaign against the Indian Act.
“I was just thinking about ways to address the colonial piece of garbage when my friend Glen (Glen Alteen, curator of the Grunt Gallery) suggested a performance piece.” Alteen chuckled when I tell him that Lawrence is crediting him with the idea. “We were playing cribbage one day when all of a sudden he said I want to shoot holes in the Indian Act. At around that time two colleagues in London were asking if there was anything happening with artists I knew and when I told them about Lawrence’s idea they liked it. They liked it so much they came up with the money and we went to London. It was crazy”
An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act was a performance piece and was recorded by two different filmmakers. The first performance was in London England at the Whisper Rifle range and the curators needed to acquire special licenses, specific permits describing the use of the gun. The British took this very seriously. Glen Alteen recalls the two solitudes. “You knew when it was a first nations audience or a white one. The first nations laugh, guffawed hysterically, whereas the white audience had to contemplate the layers of meaning”.
The impact of colonialism is Larry’s favourite target. He tackles the concepts with large scale paintings, with a biting, often sarcastic sense of humour unlike anyone else in his peer group. He shot the Indian act with an assault rifle and a shotgun. He got people, regular bystanders to engage in this act of shooting the act, an artistic performance aimed squarely at an obsequious target that cannot fire back. He doesn’t dismantle colonialism this way but he sure manages to bring attention to the act itself. Lawrence is still amazed. “People walked away from the exhibits with a stronger sense of what the Indian Act’s role was in colonization. That was over 30 years ago.”
For one of the standup interviews for this piece, we took Lawrence to Kamloops Art Gallery where the exhibition’s artwork is still in storage. He gets all worked up about the Act and in one bug harrumph exclaimed while looking straight into the camera: “Canada, get rid of this Colonial act; don’t make me go out and shoot this damn thing again”.
Now, one might think that Lawrence is an angry Indian. The public, when faced with the harsh truths and realities of the colonial framework about which we live, tend to lean toward discomfort and unease. There is a sense that we are exaggerating, going overboard, angry. That is where we find solace in Lawrence’s work. He appeases our hurt and pain that is masked by our sense of humour, our guffaws and bursts of laughter. Lawrence’s art is medicine in that sense. And believe me when I say that Lawrence is not angry at all. He is an artist who works as a social and political critic. His is the finest of our attempt at an opprobrium of colonialism.
The angry Indian is another colonial construct and a sobering thought. The accusation comes from a place of privilege and is an insult lodged by the far alt-right. Anger can be misconstrued. More often than not, impassioned pleas are all we have left as minorities who have had to deal with the loss of land, the loss of language and social and cultural genocide. The Canadian experience has not been kind to us. Schools taught us, along with millions of other Canadians, that we are savages. This is what makes Lawrence Paul’s work resonate with the Indigenous crowd but also with very large audiences.
The Indigenous ruling class, the chiefs, the bankers, the cultural minions, the academics, the professionals and even our journalists, are fair and decent people. But they are mostly conformist. One prominent indigenous journalist, who speaks anonymously, thinks that Lawrence has it all wrong. Yet, so many others agree that Yuxweluptun is a vital voice, that his art has a role to play, this writer among them. It is refreshing to see someone deviate from the consensus. It is not about the intention of art, but what art can do.
David Paperny, a filmmaker and peer I have known for many years reached out to me one day. He wanted to know what I thought about Lawrence Paul and his art practice. I asked him “why me?” He said that he pitched Lawrence on doing a film about him and the artist’s response was “you better talk to Jeff Bear first”. I edged him on to explain his pitch.
“Well, I met him at a soiree. I could see his colourful hat with small feathers dancing across the crowd and when I spotted him laughing with some film executives, I had to meet him. We chatted and he invited me to his studio. A week later when I showed up at his studio with a camera, he looked at me, said turn it on, and he proceeded to call me a colonialist who had done little more than oppress his people. I felt as though he was blaming me for everything. I didn’t even know what the Indian Act was, perhaps a play, or something. He went on for about an hour and I only stopped when my battery ran out.”
“After leaving his studio his manifesto became an earworm and I couldn’t forget his many great points. That’s when I realized this man has an important message”. Paperny’s impressions of Yuxweluptun are not unique. He didn’t take Lawrence’s polemics personally but accepted it as political commentary.
In the summer of 2016, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC opened an exhibit of Lawrence’s work and it was billed as “a provocative exhibition that confronts the colonialist suppression of First Nations peoples and the ongoing struggle for Indigenous rights to lands resources and sovereignty”. The show featured over 60 large scale paintings. The message was clear: “BC is on unceded territory”. Karen Duffek, co-curator of the exhibit, told me that the museum experienced its largest public attendance of all their shows to date. Yuxweluptun launched his RENAME BC campaign during one of his speeches.
“It is not British Columbia. They never paid for it. It’s ours. They are destroying it, killing it, choking it, polluting it. I got tired of their colonialism. If they are going to fuck you over every day why be nice to them? Fuck their British Empire. I wanted to change all of that. It’s Native land. This is the province of Native land. There is more than just British here. There is Chinese, East Indians, Japanese, Polish, Germans, you know there is not just one race here. So it’s not just a British thing, they get anal about their British Identity, you know tea and all.”
As far out as this sounds to the conservative thinker one cannot deny that the provinces name represents a history of colonization and genocide. British Columbia is one of the provinces where there are no treaties, that aboriginal title is still recognized as existing, a burden on provincial title. A place like Haida Gwaii is a large archipelago once dominated by more than 2o thousand Haida and reduced by disease to a mere 500 people by the late 19th century. Now there are two dots on the Haida Gwaii map that identify two Indian reserves. The islands have been logged out, the rainforest is drying up, the ocean is rising and warming and whales are washing up on shores. Here the name was changed from Queen Charlotte Islands to Haida Gwaii, but it did little to halt the devastating impact of climate change.
Lawrence saves his sharpest opprobrium for the purveyors of climate change.
“How do you paint Land claims? How do you paint the boys on Wall Street? How do you paint the new world order? Why should every bank come under private sector? These are dangerous people. So if I make them really ugly –they ARE! If I paint them as really creepy—they ARE! Someone has to deal with this and it might as well be me. I enjoy it. And people look at them and they see themselves, they see what the world thinks of them and so they should. They are wealthy people who should see themselves this way. I am mirroring only a cultural phenomenon of the world. I have a job to do.”
Indeed, to be able to say that you own a Lawrence Paul is a status symbol among the Vancouver elite. My friend Paperny has yet to make a film on Lawrence. But he has one of his paintings. My dentist has one hanging in his office. The collector, Michael Audain has several of Lawrence’s large scale works. Daina Augaitus of the Vancouver Art Gallery is also a patron.
Dana Claxton, professor of Art at UBC, made one a film short called of Yuxweluptun: Man of Masks focusing on An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act. She sees Lawrence as a messenger. “There is always that one artist, who brings an extraordinary amount to the table, to the gallery space and to the discourse of art, the history of art. He has been painting for 35 years and the contribution that he has made to Indigenous painting is significant.
During our production for this series, I got to renew my friendship with Lawrence and although he has aged in the 30 years since meeting him in Vancouver he is still like a curious teenager in many ways. Though he has amassed a notoriety akin to legend status, his demeanour has not changed whatsoever. He still liked to poke fun, to cajole me, to banter about politics and colonization. He never lost that sparkle, that unending interest to know how you and your family are. What kinds of things are you working on? What do you think about this and that?
He also has six daughters, a mix of several relationships. When I ask him about the current wife and the immediately past wife, he is not coy. “It’s complicated”. That’s enough for an old friend curious about his art and what motivates the talented and revered.
After several days you meet some of his brood. You witness that he is a doting father like anyone else. He loves his girls. They love him. You don’t see any anger in the man. You don’t hear him railing on about politics, or colonialism with his girls. In private conversations and during meal and coffee time, he turns all of that off. Yeah, he is capable of turning the enfant terrible, the mercenary, the hypercritical, the anti-Indian Act warrior, to the off mark, not even a decibel of provocation can be detected. But the smile is always available with a nudge.
At the end of the day, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun returns to his domestic comforts, to a place he admiringly claims is a mere 72 steps from the door of his studio. As he leaves a truck comes by to haul off 5 of Lawrence’s large-scale works. They are all sold to locals, those who can shell out the 5 figure prices his works command. Just another bad colonial day at the office for the man of masks.