“The monumental pieces almost fool you into the illusion that you have stepped back in time and are seeing the ‘traditional’ life of First Nations People of BC.”
Walking into the Museum of Anthropology at the University of BC is a little bit like walking into a parallel universe. A place that Yuxweluptun used to call “The Morgue” according to the Georgia Straight article, the Museum literally has drawers and drawers of objects sitting behind glass begging to be alive again. The monumental pieces almost fool you into the illusion that you have stepped back in time and are seeing “traditional” life of the First Nations People of BC. But then, you ask the security guard which way to hear the artist’s talk tonight and he points you down the hall to the right where you walk into a room full of First Nations people dressed just like regular people, including possibly the most colourful of them all, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
“It is the ultimate joke played on the white man who buys into the game and you can almost hear Yuxweluptun laughing to himself as he wonders how long it will take us to get the joke.”
Yukweluptun is a living, breathing reminder that First Nations cultures are alive and vibrant; that they are moving into new arenas in order to speak to the issues that are facing them right now, in the 21st century. Yukweluptun wears jeans and a paint-stained t-shirt that says: “I SURVIVED INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL GENOCIDE”. A string of blue beads hangs around his neck and his hair is long and spun into two braids that fall forward across the upside down Canadian flag that is the backdrop of the powerful words. But on his head is possibly the most striking reminder that he has not stepped out of a romanticized version of history. His hat is woven cedar wrapped with a beaded band with a whale design. The shape resembles a top hat, perhaps one of the most obvious symbols of white power. By choosing to wear the top hat created with traditional materials and methods Yukweluptun turns that farce on its head. It is the ultimate joke played on the white man who buys into the game and you can almost hear Yuxweluptun laughing to himself as he wonders how long it will take us to get the joke.
“When you have just laughed together your mind is more open, you see things with your heart and not your head and you tend to see solutions rather than problems.”
Humour is a powerful way of teaching in many First Nations culture and Yuxweluptun is does not hesitate to use it to draw his audience in and get his message across. His stories almost make us believe he has lost his train of thought and we are given permission to take a little break from trying to get the point of what he is saying. We relax, start to laugh a little, and just when we are at our most receptive and open, he brings the story around to why we are there, listening to what he has to say, listening to why he creates the art he does. It is a special kind of place and an entirely different place to listen from. When you have just laughed together your mind is more open, you see things with your heart and not your head and you tend to see solutions rather than problems. It’s really hard to feel like there is no hope when you have just been laughing.
“There is no escaping Yuxweluptun’s powerful message.”
Yuxweluptun understands the use of humour in teaching and he understands that it is essential in discussing the topics that his art speaks to. His art is powerfully political and he doesn’t shy away from getting very specific. His piece, “Christy Clark and the Kinder Morgan Go-Go Girls” takes no soft route to criticizing Clark’s political direction. Scenes of desolate landscapes and holes in the sky as shown in “Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky” make a direct correlation between our short-sighted decisions now and the inevitable results. There is no escaping Yuxweluptun’s powerful message.
“[I]t could be belly-laughing-rolling-on-the-floor funny if only someone would bring us into the inner circle. But alas, this requires letting go of our social guardedness, our inhibitions and our pretences.”
But it’s not just in the way he speaks that Yuxweluptun keeps us in a state of learning. His art also walks that fine line of intensely serious subject matter and humour. “Haida Hotdog” is so effortlessly political and funny at the same time. Yuxweluptun challenges us to “get it”. We know it’s funny, but do we know how funny it really is? Can we guess at the layers of meaning we would pull out if we grew up in a First Nations community? There is a level of insecurity that comes along with the humour. We get the sense that it could be belly-laughing-rolling-on-the-floor funny if only someone would bring us into the inner circle. But alas, this requires letting go of our social guardedness, our inhibitions and our pretences. Are we willing to go that far?
“I believe the magic comes from his ability to laugh to himself as he imagines the pieces he will create.”
The magic of Yuxweluptun’s work is undeniable. His notoriety demonstrates that well. But his work is analyzed primarily for its intense political messages and I believe the magic comes from something different altogether. I believe the magic comes from his ability to laugh to himself as he imagines the pieces he will create. To giggle as he pictures his viewers puzzling over them with a furrowed brow, wondering what clever thing they will tell their co-worker the next day about the show. I believe that if we didn’t have a threat to the earth or a threat to a healthy way of life, that Yuxweluptun would still be creating art. Perhaps it would be art with a completely different subject matter, but you can bet it would be art that teaches with humour none-the-less.