Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun standing in front of one of his artworks at his 2016 exhibit Unceded Territories.
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun is of Coast Salish heritage on his father’s side and of Okanagan (Syilx) heritage on his mother’s (see Interior Salish). His parents were both concerned with Indigenous rights, which influenced their son’s political consciousness. Yuxweluptun has said that while his father trained as a shaman and became a politician, Yuxweluptun himself was trained as a politician and became an artist.
Yuxweluptun attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School (see Residential Schools in Canada) when he was five and six years old. When he was seven, he was sent to a public school. He has spoken openly of the trauma experienced by Indigenous children who were prevented from learning about Indigenous culture and languages. Also, he has criticized both the Canadian government and Christian churches for their part in what he calls “colonial stress disorder syndrome.”
Yuxweluptun began making art when he was at residential school. In 1978 he began taking classes at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. He graduated in 1983 with an honours degree in painting. He chose Emily Carr rather than other art schools because he was interested in learning about historical and modern European art.
Yuxweluptun’s paintings show the influence of Surrealism, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. He has described himself as a “history painter.” His more surreal works often represent colourful, uncanny combinations of traditional Indigenous forms with human bodies wearing western clothing.
Although some commentators have described his paintings as surrealist, he prefers the term visionist. He has produced various dreamscapes in the style of Salvador Dali that are strong political commentaries. For example, Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (1990), is concerned with environmental destruction. In this work with many Northwest Coast influences, two scientists wearing white lab coats stand on a tall, unsteady structure in their attempt to patch up a hole in the sky. In the foreground, a large, Indigenous-looking, oval-shaped figure observes them. In the background, totem pole figures are draped on the mountain, in Daliesque style, helplessly watching the environmental destruction.
Yuxweluptun’s other surrealist paintings often critique capitalism, as in The One Percent (2015), which represents four figures against a yellow background. Each figure’s head is depicted in intensely coloured Northwest Coast formline (see Northwest Coast Indigenous Art) and each wears a sharp business suit, combining the traditional with the modern and capitalistic.
Yuxweluptun also engages with colonial Canadian landscapes, such as those painted by the Group of Seven, which he views as a troubling genre because of the way 19th- and early 20th-century Canadian painters erased First Nations peoples from the land. He is also influenced by abstract art. He has noted that he employs Ovoidism (non-referential abstraction) as a visual language to deal with a range of political issues, including the Indian Act, which he has described as a hateful piece of legislation.
Painting by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, acrylic on canvas, 1990.
In 1992, Yuxweluptun was included in the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. That same year his artwork was part of INDIGENA: Contemporary Native Perspectives at the Canadian Museum of History.
His disdain for the Indian Act is evident in his 1997 performance An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, in which he travelled to Britain and, on three occasions, literally shot 20 paper copies of the Indian Act at the Healey Estate and Bisley Camp with a rifle. This performance is now documented in the form of a multimedia work (including the rifle he used) in the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1997, Yuxweluptun sent documents about the performance to Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister of Canada and members of the Canadian Parliament. Although the Queen did not respond, a few members of Parliament did. Their letters were included in an exhibition of materials related to the original performance. These were displayed at Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery. This artwork is characteristic of Yuxweluptun’s body of works in effectively combining anger and humour in order to communicate a political message.
An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition, Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (2013). The show included more than 150 works and more than 80 artists from around the world.
In 2013, Macaulay Fine Art in Vancouver organized Yuxweluptun’s Indian World. The show included abstract and allegorical paintings that explored contemporary Indigenous issues. Macaulay Fine Art also organized the Yuxweluptun shows Neo-Totems (2016), Drawings (2017) and New Works (2018).
Yuxweluptun’s work was the focus of a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in 2016. The exhibition, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories, took place 20 years after his first major Canadian solo show. The exhibition was intended to demonstrate the progression of Yuxweluptun’s creative production and political concerns through aesthetically striking, polemical and humorous artworks from almost 40 years of painting. The exhibition also featured a selection of new works.
Above all, Yuxweluptun declares his freedom to think, create, and criticize from his perspective as an Indigenous person and artist. In a 2014 interview with Canadian Art, Yuxweluptun also revealed the underlying hope and optimism of his work:
I’m a survivor and I will freely emancipate myself as a thinking person and I will walk in my traditional territory and I will talk to this world and some time, at some point, things will change.
In addition to those listed, Yuxweluptun’s work has been included in the following exhibitions: Shore, Forest, and Beyond: Work from the Audain Collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2012); Neo-Native Drawings and Other Works: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver, 2010); Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Colour Zone (Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, 2001), and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservation (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 1995).
Group exhibitions include: Native Art Now! (Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indiana, 2017-18); RED (Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indiana, 2013); Challenging Traditions (McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinberg, Ontario, 2009); Transporters: Contemporary Salish Art (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2008), and Beyond Beads and Feathers: Recent Work by Six Contemporary Native American Artists (Portland Art Museum, Oregon, 2002).
Awards and Honours
- Recipient of the Vancouver Institute for the Visual Arts Award (1998).
- Fellowship at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art (2013).
- Honorary doctorate, Emily Carr University of Art and Design (2019).