Landscape and the Contemporary Native Artist

Laura-Lee Neil

First Nation identity has forgone major changes and there has been a shift to move past the stereotyped and categorized images that Eurocentric historians have imposed on First Nations people. By creating innovative works that combine the traditional aspects of their culture with the modern influences and challenges that they are faced with First Nations artists have defined their place in contemporary society. As a reflection of their own society, contemporary First Nations artists have been exhibiting artworks that question their ethnic, racial, gender and sexual identity for the past two decades. The landscape genre enables contemporary First Nations artists to express and question their identity in relation to their ancestral territory. The exhibition Land, Spirit, Power allowed First Nations artists to highlight the state of their land and the interaction with it. Rebecca Belmore and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, whose works are displayed in the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition, use the landscape genre as a means of engaging with the question of identity.

Identity is unique to the individual, however, there are people who have collective experiences and find an empowerment in artistic expression. First Nation identity extends beyond “Indianess” and many contemporary artists are struggling with labels such as postcolonial artists. Their experiences and those of their predecessors cannot be simplified as purely colonial. Native Americans have a rich heritage that spreads far before Europe’s first contact with the Americas. The landscape that had defined the way of life for First Nations ancestors, as well as defining the art that they had produced, has become the icon of nationhood for Euro-Americans. For both groups of people the Canadian landscape has become a source of identity, however it has also become a source of grief. Land disputes that have resulted in an attempt to define the Canadian frontier has altered the way many First Nations people interact with their landscape, which in turn has affected the art that they produce.

Since the eighteenth century there have been attempts to eliminate the production of Native art in hopes to assimilate the culture. The efforts taken by colonialists and missionaries in America to acculturate the First Nations art and tradition widely encouraged the viewpoint that prohibited First Nations artists to be taken seriously in the art world. Nineteenth century historians classified First Nations pre-contact artworks as prehistoric artefacts, a perspective which continued well into the twentieth century [1]. It was not until the 1980’s that First Nations artists began to express their unique identity through art and produced works inspired by their ancestry and not by the imposed notion of “Indian Art.” Although both Belmore and Yuxweluptun did receive formal training, they maintain a strong connection to the history and landscape that has shaped their lives. By merging aspects of traditional Native imagery with contemporary art, Belmore and Yuxweluptun construct an innovative hybrid in art.

Land, Spirit, Power was the first international exhibition showcasing the works of First Nations people. The exhibition took place in 1992 at the National Gallery of Canada and was presented in correlation with Canada’s 125th birthday. The exhibition was organized by Diana Nemiroff, Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Robert Houle. Some critics, such as Scott Watson, felt that the Canadian art world was asking Native Americans to assert their “Indianess” in conjuncture with Canada’s birthday. “The Landscape and the Contemporary Native Artist current demand for the voice of the Other is coming from an institution of Canadian Art that has yet to revisit and re-examine its own past” [2]. Watson viewed the exhibition as an attempt to disguise the tenuous relationship between the Canadian government and the country’s First Nations people.

Rebecca Belmore‟s work as a performer, community animator and artist brings attention to the lost voice of First Nations people. Belmore subsumes her cultural identity as being of the Anishnabe tribe in her artwork. She uses her body in her installations as a sculptural reference and as a cultural work. She identifies with her body and does not shy away from its implications. Her body becomes a symbol of gender and race and embraces the associations linked to it because it calls attention to the injustices many female First Nations people have faced. The idea of memory is consistent throughout her art which may explain her reliance on landscape to vocalize her work, however, more often than not she gives the landscape a voice.

For the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition, Belmore exhibited an installation entitled Speaking to their Mother. This installation consisted of a large megaphone which was subsequently used by thirteen Native Americans as a means of communicating with the land about First Nations concerns such as the destruction of their environment. “In 1992, Belmore began a Canada wide collaboration with Aboriginal people, travelling to communities across the nation with a huge wooden megaphone titled Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, through which individuals addressed the Earth” [3]. Belmore started this exhibition in support of the Oka Crisis and the territorial disputes the Mohawk people were having in Kanesatake. Belmore deals with the struggles of First Nations people in terms of territorial disputes and its effect on identity. She states that “Asking people to address the land directly was an attempt to hear political protest as poetic action” [4]. Therefore, the land that Belmore addresses becomes a character in the installation; it is an entity that can be spoken to and one that deserves a voice.

Belmore also used the Canadian landscape as a voice providing Aboriginal women with individual identities in named and unnamed. This powerful installation was created in response to the disappearance of women in downtown East Vancouver, many who were Native American. The image of children and women lying dead in the snow is another captivating and repulsive scene in the installation. The whiteness of the snow shows the indifference towards the violence inflicted on Native Americans. The landscape becomes the page in which history has been written on. A blank canvas offers every opportunity, but when faced with greed and corruption, becomes stained with blood.

Rebecca Belmore‟s Fountain was presented in 2005 at the Venice Biennale. She was the first female Native American artist to present her work at the Canadian Pavilion. Jann LM Bailey, Director and curator of the Kamloops Art Gallery, as well as Scott Watson, director of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, nominated Belmore to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale [5].

Foutain, a film installation, was projected onto a water screen, in a quiet, darkened room. Like most of Belmore’s performances, this installation piece was filmed outside the gallery space. Shot by Naom Gonick the film is a two and a half minute loop featuring a small strip of beach in Iona that belongs to the Musqueam tribe. Iona Beach is only a short distance from Vancouver’s international airport, a lumber mill and a sewage treatment plant. The location chosen calls attention to the devastating effects of industrial waste in First Nations territories.

The film begins with a panoramic view of dark grey clouds and the viewpoint slowly moves downward to show their reflection. In the distance, we can see a sewage pipe, lumber and drift wood on the beach. There is audio of a plane taking off or landing at the Vancouver International Airport. Sewage pipes, lumber and the plane audio, all revealing a disturbance in scene, are impinging upon the desolate landscape. The camera reaches a pile of wood that spontaneously combusts into flames, and remains focused on this image, asking the viewer to respond to this fire when there is no music to guide their emotions, and there are no people to tell us the meaning of the action. There is only the sound of wind, with the image of fire on the shoreline. The scene shifts to Belmore herself emerging from the water fully clothed. The way in which she lifts herself does not imply that she is drowning, but that she is being created. She looks confused and sputters water with disgust; she wails her arms and legs around looking for something, until she finds an old pail and struggles with it. She initially appears unable to control her body, but as the scene slows, she becomes fully composed and carries the pail out of the water with an air of result. “The burden implies an ongoing, futile battle. It is a reminder that the oceans carried Europeans to the Americas and were witness to the shock waves of their arrival” [6]. Belmore’s attempt to extinguish the fire on the shoreline with an old pail of water symbolizes the feeling of futility that many Native Americans have toward the overwhelming effects of European colonists. She approaches the shore and continues walking; she heaves the pail of water, which has turned to blood onto the lens. After heaving the pail Belmore regains her breath as though the moment of climax has ended. As the blood slowly drips off the lens Belmore stares at the viewer with both accusation and sadness in her eyes. “It is the expression of someone ready to move forward, with nothing to fear and, sadly, nothing more to lose” [7]. This concluding shot of Belmore recapitulates the emotional state of many First Nations people.

Belmore enforces her identity as an Anishnabe woman, and the memory of her people, through the symbolic use of the fountain.  The bloodshed of the First Nations people in the name of European power is represented in the pail of blood. She heaves the pail of blood as if to the fountain itself, which symbolizes the European rule. Nobility and papacy during the Italian Renaissance commissioned fountains as a monument to power, strength, and identity. Modern institutions continue to commission fountains, although the global water supply is becoming corrupted. Belmore uses the specific Iona waterfront to bring attention to territories that are being encroached upon by large companies who pollute the air, earth and water around them.  Both Venice and Vancouver, where Belmore lives, are known as having an abundance of water and are busy ports, which has led to the pollution of the natural source. Although she places the onus of bloodshed on colonialism, Belmore’s use of the landscape indicates that First Nations people and their land are still suffering. Through her visual narratives and strong imagery Belmore scrutinizes the treatment given to the Canadian landscape, and that of its inhabitants.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, similarly to Belmore, examines the modern cultural and environmental changes and how they have affected the First Nations identity. By using a non-traditional approach to art expression both Belmore and Yuxweluptun communicate that there is a need to assert their First Nation’s identity in a contemporary manner while maintaining the integrity of their message. The incorporation of new methods into traditional art allows Yuxweluptun to reach a broader audience and to bring attention to concerns faced by First Nations people.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun spent his early life in Kamloops and the suburb of Richmond. His mother was Okanagan and had a West Coast Salish father [8]. Both his parents were heavily involved in Native American rights; however, Yuxweluptun did not live on a reserve during his childhood. As an artist he finds power working from the land. Presently, he lives on the Carrier reserve at Fort St. James [9].

His artworks, charged with political intent, show a surreal landscape suspended in between time and place with imagery that borrows from First Nation traditional art. Stated by Scott Watson reportedly of Yuxweluptun “As a Salish artist, he disregards the rule that ethnicity must authorize tribal styles by making use of Haida and Kwakwaka‟wakw design in his work” [10]. The landscapes he creates are so in tune with First Nations cultural identity that they are built from images stemming from several Northwest Coast art and tradition.

The landscape paintings are all done in bright-saturated colours, providing the works with a semblance of toxicity symbolizing the effects of industrial waste on the Canadian landscape. Yuxweluptun has mentioned that he records the state of his land and that he records the troubles and pains it has experienced [11]. He does not romanticize the past and his landscapes are not images of the rugged wilderness. “Yuxweluptun’s work – with its self-conscious mixing of Northwest Coast native motifs and European modernism…” [12]. Although Yuxweluptun was trained and influenced by the European standards of art, his work remains unique. Whereas western European paintings attempt to capture the essence of beauty or power in landscapes with picturesque or sublime inspired paintings, Yuxweluptun identifies with landscapes and uses it as the voice for his people.

Many of Yuxweluptun’s imaginative landscapes depict contemporary Native issues such as land claims. “Key in this effort has been the re-articulation of nature as a cultural and political artefact, rather than a purely physical domain, and thus crises-crossed by prior political claims that are mobilized again in contemporary struggles over land, resources and nation” [13]. This point of view of landscape as a cultural and political artefact is common to many contemporary Native Americans artists. Yuxweluptun is reclaiming the Canadian landscape by depicting it in his own terms. He not only brings attention to the urgency to rehabilitate the Canadian landscape but also shows the importance it plays as a cultural and political artefact, which must be preserved.

Yuxweluptun has stated that his art is ‘salvational art’ which has a double meaning. In Christianity the term is used to describe “… the possibility of spiritual rescue for fallible humanity” [14]. In  a more contemporary sense, Yuxweluptun also uses the term ‘salvational art’ to suggest that the earth can be salvaged. Scorched Earth, Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Lands, Shaman Coming to Fix (1991) shows how landscape can be affected by political conflict.

Yuxweluptun asserts not a dream world but a spirit world of his own, not open to interpretation in the same way. Free interpretation is deflected. In uncompromising terms you are told what to make of it [15].

Yuxweluptun tells the viewer what the image represents with the title. He claims the land back from colonialism by painting or drawing in symbols from his Coast Salish heritage such as the reference to talking sticks. He shows the pain suffered by both the landscape and by the Native Americans inhabiting it. The Sun, Earth and figure, representing all indigenous people, are all crying; however the shaman in the foreground represents the salvational aspect of this work. The Shaman who is meant to heal the earth is exasperated by the task at hand. He holds a faced tool in one hand that looks on in horror, while a small animal climbs up his staff in an attempt to escape the toxic land below. The Shaman’s role is important in the political message Yuxweluptun is conveying; by recognizing the land claims of Aboriginal people, the landscape will begin to ‘heal’.

Clayoquot (1993) illustrates the same land claims as Scorched Land. The clear-cut trees and sanctioned areas of blank landscape in his image refer to the small reservations allotted to First Nations people in Canada. Yuxweluptun is reclaiming the land that was taken from Canada‟s Native population through the act of colonialism and contemporary corporate practice with the incorporation of Salish imagery. Yuxweluptun is stating that corporations such as Husquarna are culpable for the disheartening state of the Canadian landscape. The logo ‘Husquarna’ is printed on a chain saw cutting into the landscape on its own accord leaving the company free from any responsibility. The corporate threat represented by the chain saws acts as a determining factor in the Earth’s deteriorating condition.

Responsibility in land construction is a theme played upon in Inherent Rights, Vision Rights (1991-92) a Virtual Reality landscape created for the exhibition Land, Spirit, Power. The viewer places the helmet over their eyes and creates their own environment by moving around and changing their point of view, a literal translation of Yuxweluptun’s intent. “No one is allowed to remain a detached spectator of someone else’s mess” [16]. The Virtual Reality borders on kitsch with images of the pixel sun crying a huge tear and the primitive graphics, however, Yuxweluptun’s landscape and characters remains imaginative.

In The Impending Nisga’a’ Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change (1996) the landscape is deformed, the ground seems molten, and the trees are all cut except for two dark foreboding trees in the background that contrasts with the rest of the highly colourful, almost toxic image. Even the mountains appear to slouch and give in to the hollow ground beneath them. The landscape spews out in the middle and an ovoid in the right hand corner crumbles apart, a sign that the land has been exhausted. The only optimistic imagery in the landscape is the sky filled with white puffy clouds, unaware of the dealings below. In the foreground are three central figures, a white man carrying a briefcase and a smug smile and two Native Americans who seem disturbed by their dealings. One of the Native Americans is poking his tongue out at the bureaucratic figure, while the other is pointing to the landscape and a pile of change in front of him that is partially covered by the land. The title of this piece is the voice of the political figure pointing to the landscape, he is insisting on taking a last stand instead of settling for chump change.

Native Americans have a heritage that ties spirituality to nature and this is often explored in contemporary artworks. The Canadian landscape and the identity of the First Nations people have changed drastically since colonialism. By using landscape as a theme in their work, Belmore and Yuxweluptun are able to bring attention to the challenges Canada‟s First Nations people are facing concerning their own identities. Yuxweluptun creates a landscape beyond time and place, although the titles of his works direct the viewer‟s perception of his artworks. As Charlotte Townsend-Gault stated: “Yuxweluptun does not create landscapes, he creates land claims” [17]. The landscapes created are a tool used to give identity to the Native American, and to challenge the role Euro-Americans play in so-called cohabitation. Although Yuxweluptun is a contemporary artist his subject and message have long been under debate by other First Nations people. His paintings show a struggle for unity by borrowing from different tribal art, but he also strives for independence and the opposition of the Indian Act. Yuxweluptun creatively transforms landscapes in order to raise awareness. They are filled with bright toxic colours and melted land; the characters seem either sad or defiant. His paintings never look back to a romanticized past, but with hope to the future [18]. He records the unjust treatment his land and people are receiving and his message for equality and environmental concerns is clear.

Belmore does not alter the landscape in the same manner as Yuxweluptun, however she does manipulate it in order to give a voice and identity to the land. By using the polluted shoreline in Iona for Fountain, and the snow as a blank canvas of history in Named and Unnamed, Belmore illustrates the abuse endured by First Nations as well as the earth.  By having Native peoples speak directly to the landscape in Speaking to Their Mother, Belmore personifies the landscape and creates a third party in treaty negotiations. While Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun states that nature is a cultural and political artifact Belmore indicates that the land has its own entity which must be considered in order to reach a just conclusion [19]. Addressing the landscape in this manner brings to light the lack of identity in Native communities; a megaphone had to be used in order for the land to hear its people’s cries. By physically using the landscape in her installation Rebecca Belmore brings awareness to the way we interact with it. Both artists are interested in recording the way in which empirical powers have affected the Earth as well as how they have affected its inhabitants.

1. Diana Nemiroff. “Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada.” National Gallery of Canada, Portland: Book News, 1992.
2. Bruce Braun. “Cultural Geographies” Colonialism’s afterlife: vision and visuality on the Northwest Coast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota , 2002. p. 202-247.
3. Watson, Scott, “The Modernist Past of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s Landscape Allegories,” Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservations. Eds. Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Scott Watson, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 1995, p. 8.
4. Lee-Ann Martin. “The Waters of Venice: Rebecca Belmore at 51st Biennal.” Canadian Art. Vol. 22,Iss. 2  (Summer 2005), p. 4.
5. Canada Council for the Arts. “Rebecca Belmore will represent Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale of visual art.” News Release
2004.URL: November 23rd 2007.
6. Martin, p.48.
7. Ibid.
8. Braun, p.233.
9. Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “The Salvation Art of Yuxweluptun” Yuxweluptun : Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservation (exhibition catalogue) Vancouver : Belkin Art Gallery, 1995.
10. Watson, p.2.
11. Braun, p.234.
12. Townsend-Gault, p. 12.
13. Braun, p. 205.
14. Townsend-Gault, p. 14.
15. Townsend-Gault, p.12.
16. Townsend-Gault, p.17.
17. Townsend-Gault, p.1.
18. Townsend-Gault, p.13.
19. Townsend-Gault, p. 14.