Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Unceded Territories by Stephanie Moran

In the context of indigenous rights struggles in British Columbia, decolonization is not just a metaphor, an abstract theory, or a project of contemporary art: it is a real demand.

The title of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s major solo exhibition refers to the fact that the city of Vancouver (regularly in the top five index of the world’s best places to live) is built on land that has never officially been ceded to the Canadian nation by the First Nations bands that lived there for centuries before ‘settler’ immigrants arrived from Europe and claimed it as theirs, forcing the original habitants onto tiny reservation areas.

Yuxweluptun paints the British Columbian landscape peopled with stylized psychedelic representations of indigenous figures in contrast with the suited or lab-coated ‘white man’ with sinister mask-like faces. He seamlessly synthesises modernist forms and traditional First Nations styles into his own distinctive and individual painting language, depicting a personal mythological and shamanistic vision of the territories that reveals the underlying and usually invisible (to the non-indigenous ‘settlers’, tourists and visitors) political and societal conflict.

Yuxweluptun’s epic contemporary canvases deliver a condemning polemic in tones from the satirical to the raging, and visually articulate the injustices of the dispossession of the original peoples of Canada: the many different nations that were decimated and segregated, disenfranchised from their ancestral lands, still struggle to be recognized as nations in their own right, and to set the terms of negotiations over the territories they now share with the Canadian nation. The paintings of suited corporate figures reveals the ugly face of their greed to extract the land’s resources for profit, acts which doubly dispossess the First Nations peoples; whose business interest complicates any negotiation over land rights while wreaking massive environmental damage.

Other paintings show the religious aspects of First Nations’ peoples, as in Spirit Dancer Dances Around the Fire, a mystical painting of spirits dancing in the sacred ceremonial space of the longhouse. Viewers can walk around a longhouse space in the very early virtual reality piece Inherent Rights, Vision Rights, 1992, that Yuxweluptun created on a residency at the Banff Centre. The cyber-world of the VR piece suits the shamanic world-vision and psychedelic figures of the paintings, and translates them into the more familiar contemporary ground of video games. In a recorded interview from 1992, Yuxweluptun describes VR helmets as ‘the white man’s mask’, as he pityingly explains that this is the first time whites have made a cultural mask, and that they are generally unable to access other dimensions without the aid of technology.

Unceded Territories by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is on display at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Vancouver until 16th October. 
(Text by Stephanie Moran 2016)

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