Talking totem poles, with Levi Nelson

When Levi Nelson entered his piece, Anthropology, for the IDEA Art Award competition in March this year, he only told the judges half the story.

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Anthropology, by Levi Nelson

The contest winner would have their painting bought for $5,000 and installed at the Joseph and Rosalie Segal Family Health Centre, the mental health wing at Vancouver General Hospital. It was meant to be calming. And non-confrontational. So when 32-year-old Nelson wrote the artist statement to accompany his 36 by 48 inch oil painting of the three ancient totem poles from Haida Gwaii that stand at the entrance to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, he gave a diluted version of his journey to create the painting.

“There was more to the story,” says Nelson, “but it just seemed too political.”

For Nelson, the painting wasn’t just about the totem poles as a celebration of his culture, the resilience of his people, the stories of the totems or animal energies that humans can call upon. It was also about decay and collapse and rebuilding and cultural appropriation and theft and destruction and dismay and a million other impossible-to-capture emotions in words.

It was a reclamation, he said, of something that was taken away. “A lot of the First Nations’ artifacts that are housed in museums were essentially stolen or confiscated. By painting them, I am, in a sense, taking them back.”

It’s not that anything in his artist statement was untrue. When he wrote to the jury, “I believe art is therapeutic,” the second-year art student at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design meant it. No holds barred.

“I’ve been on this path of trying to find out what I want to be or do, this inner need to have some kind of legacy.”

One day, labouring over the dish-pit where he was working, he had a breakdown. “I was like, this can’t be my life, I can’t stop here, I need to be doing something.”

He applied to art school. “I looked through my life and realized, since high school I’ve been painting. I would just get this need to paint and I’d create something.”

Even if there were no art supplies on hand. Like when he grabbed an empty pizza box, and a piece of charcoal and sketched out a portrait of a wise Indian wearing a gas mask to create a piece he called Indian Pizza Company, which is now hanging in the Reforming Art show at Emily Carr, where he’s mounted it ironically in an expensive glass shadow box — a wry commentary on the way First Nations art has been revered, even as its creators and community have been disdained.

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Indian Pizza Company, by Levi Nelson

“I was so excited when I got the letter of acceptance. It was freeing, a chance at making something better of myself,” he says.

At Emily Carr, he’s been wowing his professors, acing his exams, generating buzz amongst the senior critical studies students, selling art, being featured in shows, but most importantly, finding a space to consider this moment in place and time, and his place in it.

“I’m just now starting to realize my angle on the world as an artist. What does it mean to be a First Nations artist who didn’t go to residential school, whose first language is English, who’s been educated at a top university? What does it mean to navigate through the urban city as a First Nations person? I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m taking trips to the Museum of Anthropology — one of those trips inspired the Anthropology painting. I saw these totem poles, snapped this picture, printed out a photograph and decided it would look great as a painting, without even realizing (how deep that would take me).”

As Nelson began to work on the piece, he learned about the missionaries and government officials who confiscated ceremonial masks and totem poles in the beginning of the 20th century.

“They’d see these totem poles lying on the ground, and think, ‘oh the people aren’t taking care of it. We’re going to take it away and put it in a museum.’ They did not realize that one of the practices with totem poles is that once they fall over, that is its life. It’s left to deteriorate back into the earth,” he says.

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Fallen Totem, by Levi Nelson

Art collectors and museum curators rescue these fallen totems and refurbish them and protect them from decay, housing them in facilities where the light and the air temperature are controlled, so the artifacts are protected and preserved. This is very important to museums and art galleries — that the pieces are frozen in time. And as they gain value, the pieces become too valuable to allow them to be repatriated to the communities that created them, often because of a pervading sense that these broken communities just won’t know how to take care of them, won’t understand how important these artifacts are.

“When I go in and paint these totem poles,” says Nelson, “it’s my way of taking them back out of the museum, but through a different avenue. Regaining agency over the powers that took them away from our people a couple of hundred years ago. It’s very sad to me — I’m speaking to you in English, which is my first language. I think in English, I’m getting A pluses on my art history exams, but I still have this connection to my culture, through dancing with my mom’s Iswalh dance group and singing our songs which are thousands of years old, but I’m living in western society, with a Facebook account and a cellphone. It’s just weird to think about sometimes.”

Nelson is using his art to travel the parallel universes that he’s caught between and in doing so, he nudges us all towards a realization that there are different ways of loving and revering and valuing art, and that ultimately, it’s all here to remind us of love, belonging, survival and decay. The endless cycle of life and loss, and the making in between.

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