First Nations Art and the Matter of Its Politics

Is contemporary Aboriginal art necessarily political? Does art made by First Nations, Inuit, or Métis artists inevitably engage with such historical events and trauma as the legacy of Residential Schools, colonialism, or the missing and murdered Indigenous women? Are these questions themselves colonial? Are these not issues that concern us all?

Sonny Assu’s copper works that reference the shameful history of residential schools, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s paintings of the “1%”, Beau Dick’s forthcoming show centered around his protests in Victoria and Ottawa, and Marianne Nicolson’s land art all make the case that the strongest art by Indigenous artists confronts and works with Canada’s histories of colonialism, racism, and exclusion.

Vancouver artist Assu’s recent exhibition Day School (Equinox Gallery, Vancouver) deals precisely with this history, especially in the two sculptures Inherent (2014) and Leila’s Desk (2014). Both represent school desks, one, Leila’s Desk, with a bar of soap on it, the other with the racist epithet “Chug” rendered in copper foil under the desk lid. Copper is an important medium to Assu’s work (a young artist, his first solo exhibition was in 2006): he fabricated 67 Starbucks-like coffee cups out of spun copper for the piece 1884/1951 (2009), for instance, which serially represents the potlatch-ban years (recorded in the work’s title) on Canada’s West Coast. Assu made records out of copper for Ellipses (2010), its 167 discs referencing the number of years since the Indian Act was promulgated in 1876, and an ethnographic recording made by Chief Billy Assu (Sonny’s great-great grandfather) in 1947. In Day School, Assu has also mounted copper records on plaques, for the Gone Copper series. This ability to compress into an artwork traditional materials and contemporary issues is also evident in what may be Assu’s best-known piece, Coke-Salish (2006), which, in the “culture-jamming” methodology of Adbusters (but also ‘90s skater culture) considers what it means to “enjoy” (or reside, or work on) traditional Coast Salish territory, an area that includes the Vancouver metropolis. Assu’s strength is in making work that, by referencing objects we think we know (a brand, a coffee cup), then transforms our knowledge and exposes us to the new or the unknown: native territory, histories of the potlatch ban, ethnomusicology, the history of residential schools.

On exhibition in Vancouver at the same time were a few paintings by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, at Macaulay & Co. Fine Art. Since the 1980s, Yuxweluptun has made art like few others, paintings that bring Dali and other European Surrealists into a stylistic barrage of political issues. Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky (1990) posits climate change as an issue related to colonialism. The Impending Nisga’a’ Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change (1996) similarly offers an acerbic take on land claims (B.C. First Nations, unlike much of Canada, never signed treaties with the federal government).

But what’s most important about Yuxweluptun’s work is how he takes the traditional “formline” and “ovoid” components of West Coast art and renders them in a contemporary style. A recent Yuxweluptun painting, The One Percent (2015), pictures four figures in business suits; totem-like heads vie with Western realism. S-curves may be Dali-esque mustaches, colors shade from orange-yellow to turquoise to bilious green. A figure on the right, most recognizably a white businessman, sports an earlobe expander, a reminder of how today’s “urban primitive” hipster fads have deep roots in traditional cultures. Is the painting a reference to the corporate elite – the target of Occupy’s “one percent” versus “99 percent” rhetoric – or to hierarchies more specific to First Nations peoples? What, then, of the manner in which Yuxweluptun “occupies” Western art, rendering an otherwise moribund tradition – tourist art – into a style both relevant and challenging to our polite sensibilities? These questions matter because of the trajectory of Yuxweluptun’s career: he has famously decried anthropology museums “Indian morgues” because of how they contain and display relics stolen or appropriated from traditional cultures, even as those cultures were under legal and existential threats from the white man. And yet Yuxweluptun will have a major retrospective at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in the summer of 2016.

Does this mean that Yuxweluptun has “sold out”? A productive troubling of this narrative arrives in a forthcoming catalogue essay on Yuxweluptun by Vancouver writer Michael Turner, who spins a gossip-y bit of artworld yarn into a detournément of politics and resistance. He describes:

… [an] unpleasant event [that] took place at the home of West Vancouver collectors in 1998, shortly after Yuxweluptun debuted a series of acrylic canvases at a private Vancouver gallery. Entitled Ovoidism, the exhibition featured large paintings of single-color ovoids (sans interior formline details) floating over single-color fields. Seen from a distance, these works suggest hard-edge painting; but on closer inspection their minimal surfaces bubble, if not from the literal application of impasto, then perhaps as a result of an unsettled interior condition reminiscent of what Yuxweluptun refers to on his “bad days” as “post-colonial syndrome.”

But it was in the response to Yuxweluptun’s Oviodism by those gathered in West Vancouver that the unsettled interior condition at work in these paintings finds its analogue, with lawyers and scholars incredulous, then furious, that Yuxweluptun should abandon narrative for lyricism, figuration for abstraction, admonishment for ambiguity. As much as this response was directed at an artist who has more than once declared :If Europeans can have Modernism, so can Indians,” a deeper reason might lie in Yuxweluptun’s VIVA Award acceptance speech earlier that year, when he reminded those in the audience “You’re all squatters on my land.”

Perhaps the most political act may be when a First Nations artist refuses to make political art.

Certainly a younger artist whose work explicitly troubles such distinctions is that of Raymond Boisjoly. In such works as The Writing Lesson (2011), which uses black metal typography to reproduce First Nations place names (Chilliwack, Nanaimo), and Intervals/Illumination (2013), which scanned a Buffy Sainte-Marie video and preserved the visual “noise,” the politics in Boisjoly’s art lies, first, in the “content”/history of the source material (Buffy Sainte-Marie as Indigenous protest singer, black metal as anti-Christian insurgency), and then in the “politics of form” in their transformation/rendering. When I asked Boisjoly about precisely this, his answer was thoughtful but also direct:

I don’t trade in topical political issues in my work, though a lot of my work concerns our capacity to know the thing the work is ostensibly about, and the works often resist easy meanings that would serve to fix them as “Aboriginal” simply due to the presence of Aboriginal content. I guess I would say my work is not didactically political. That said, I am an Indigenous artist reluctant to represent Indigenous people.

That reluctance is evident in Boisjoly’s play with visibility: black metal lettering renders Indigenous words almost illegible, and photographic methods (as in Rez Gas, which began in 2012, where gas station images are printed on construction paper) are virtually irreproducible.

And so if Sonny Assu’s work suffers from an over-directness, from a literalness that eschews the oblique “subtlety” preferred by contemporary art, Raymond Boisjoly veers in the opposite direction, displaying an obscurity via two or three levels of formal allegory, materials-based process, and pop-culture slyness. With Assu, you begin with the one-liner, whereas with Boisjoly, you end (if you’re lucky) by putting the interpretive pieces of the puzzle together. Assu challenges and frustrates critics who don’t want their allegorical reading made so readily apparent: copper Starbucks cups – genius! Taken together, these two artists represent the “next-gen” answer to Brian Jungen. Take one’s pop culture and remix it with Aboriginal same into art. It’s as if Jungen – whose work was so crucial to 1990s Vancouver art – split into two, one of his own runner-masks cut apart again, chairs re-stacked to be returned to Canadian Tire. Boisjoly is the technician, Assu the mechanic. Interestingly, though, neither is much interested in what is, arguably, next to such political issues as the residential schools or land claims, the largest system of belief for First Nations peoples – native spirituality, either for its own sake or as a postcolonial venture.

Which is not to say that smart contemporary art shies away from traditional spirituality (and is that political, or is it not?). It can be found in the work of Beau Dick and Marianne Nicolson.

I began with Assu’s use of copper. On the West Coast, copper is everywhere in art, and in history. The material was traded up and down the coastline (historians speculate this originated with the Ahtna and Tlingit people in Alaska) and after contact with European traders. But more than a material for jewelry, copper especially became a symbol of wealth for the Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw people. Imagine it rendered in large shields (two or three feet in height), comprised of a square at the bottom and a flaring at the top, often with a T-shape hammered into the square, and designs carved or painted on the top. These were called different names in different coastal languages, and often, in English, “the Copper.” (American art historian Carol F. Jopling is the great expert here – but Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Marcel Mauss all attest to copper’s importance to anthropology.) Coppers were named, had stories attached to them, and were not only traded but made the objects of potlatches. An Edward Curtis photograph from 1914, for instance, shows Hakalahl, a Kwakwaka’wakw chief, holding a Copper named Wanistakila, “taking everything out of the house” for its immense value.

Copper, according to Jodi Simkins of the Nuyumbalees cultural center (in Assu’s hometown, Cape Mudge, B.C.), also had to do with one’s standing in the local “pesid” or economic hierarchy. The Copper was both an object and a representation. Jopling refers to the art historian George Kubel and his ideas of the “prime object,” to be distinguished from the masterpiece or the original. But the very importance invested in the object (which was only registered in the stories related about the Coppers) meant that it also exposed a weakness or possible strategy. The Copper was a political object.

And precisely because of this importance – symbolic, economic, representational – the Copper was vulnerable as an object. The action of “breaking” or “cutting” a Copper – which ranged from cutting off or breaking a corner to throwing the entire plate into the sea or a fire (sometimes done by slaves, sometimes rescued after, sometimes via wooden effigies) was a gesture of rivalry between chiefs. The gesture then took on a different economic status when the “nouveau riche” (Simkins again), who had perhaps benefited from the sudden influx of goods during the trading period, upset the aristocratic status quo. For “status” – as in “status update” and all its social-media connotations – was always an important social value. The newly rich would destroy Coppers as a way of both displaying (or performing) arrogance and a critique of the existing order: an act of protest.

It’s this form of critique that is preserved in Beau Dick’s performances/protests, when he “cuts Copper” as an action to confront various levels of the Canadian government. In some ways, Dick is the archetypal revivalist of tradition: a shaman, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw “secret society” of Hamatsa dancers, he carves masks and totems, stages potlatches and Winter Dances, every time-honored ritual of coastal First Nations. And yet, in February 2013, inspired, as he tells it, by his daughters and the #IdleNoMore movement, Dick led a walk from Alert Bay, near the top of Vancouver island, to the provincial Legislature in Victoria, an approximately 500-kilometer trek. There on the lawn in front of their provincial parliament, Dick broke a corner off a Copper as a form of anti-colonial “social shaming.” Dick repeated the political performance a year later in Ottawa (July 2014), and it’s these two actions that will form the center of his exhibition at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in 2016.

The “breaking Copper” actions position Dick in a complicated way to Kwakwaka’wakw cultures; it’s as if he were appropriating the revolutionary energy of the bourgeois (nineteenth-century nouveau riche) for his own, more progressive ends. That is, what is both conceptual and political about Dick’s gesture is how it works with scale: taking what was an inter-subjective or community gesture and rendering it nation-to-nation. Like The Mouse that Roared, but also like the early twentieth-century appeal from Joe Capilano and other Coast Salish chiefs to the Queen in London; like Jimmy Durham in his attention to the object and materiality but also like Carl Andre or Gerald Ferguson (think of the latter’s One Million Pennies – more copper), in terms of sculpture and transformation.

Roy Arden, who curated Beau Dick’s work with that of painter Neil Campbell at the Contemporary Art Gallery in 2004, has characterized the division between First Nations and non-First Nations artists as a kind of “Æsthetic Apartheids.” And while the manner in which Dick’s work bridges traditional Kwakwaka’wakw art and contemporary conceptualism is unprecedented, when we turn to our final artist, we find Marianne Nicolson working the leitmotif of the Copper in a strikingly similar fashion.

Like Dick, Nicolson was born in Kingcome Inlet, a native settlement some 500 kilometers north of Vancouver on the B.C. coast. In 1998, on a fifty-foot cliff on the inlet, she painted a large contemporary pictograph, a Copper design, telling the story of the area’s settlement by the Dzawada‘enuxw people of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Part rock-climbing endurance feat, part commemoration of a 1920s pictograph, Nicolson’s work, like Dick’s, is both conceptual and traditional, political and formal. And, again like Dick – and differently than Yuxweluptun and Assu – Nicolson’s painting plays with the public and the private. Dick, for instance, reserves some of his carvings and methods for in-group knowledge; so, too, Nicolson’s painting, while viewable online, is public art for a certain public, for those of her nation, in her inlet. To understand Nicolson’s monumental cliff painting of a Copper, one should understand how Coppers feature in so much Kwakwaka’wakw visual culture – from button blankets and other regalia to pictographs and totems.

To look at and think about contemporary Indigenous art also means to realize that standard questions about politics and form are inadequate. On the West Coast, at least – where the potlatch ban saw thousands of artifacts seized by government agents and sold to collectors – “traditional” works are the subject of very contemporary debates over repatriation and museology. A broken Copper signifies protest, but also the essential fragility of political hierarchies. Perhaps Aboriginal artists have always been contemporary, have always been modern; perhaps, too, we need to stop seeing the legible historical or political issue in Aboriginal art, and instead pay more attention (as, indeed, Nicolson urges us) to its material, form, and concept. Like a broken Copper, time itself folds into reboots of old attitudes, as Indigenous artists seize the contemporary, break history, and refuse to be reconciled to the state of the present.


  • Roy Arden says:

    “What, then, of the manner in which Yuxweluptun “occupies” Western art, rendering an otherwise moribund tradition – tourist art – into a style both relevant and challenging to our polite sensibilities? ”

    What exactly is being said here? What is the “otherwise moribund tradition – tourist art”? Is Burnham saying that North West Coast Indigenous art has been only a dead tradition of tourist art before Yuxweluptun? Or is he saying that something called “tourist art” has been transformed by Yuxweluptun? If so, what is this ‘tourist art’?

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