Finding Our Way: Levi Nelson’s “A brief history of Lil’wat”

A Brief History of Lil'wat by Levi Nelson

“A Brief History of Lil’wat” (diptych) 2018
40×60 inches, oil and acrylic on canvas
Levi Nelson

I met Levi Nelson last July.

His mom, Lois Joseph, had shared an email about his being shortlisted for the IDEA award, and someone forwarded it to me, and I posted it on the Wellness Almanac, because this is a place we celebrate people’s successes, (most especially the hard-won ones), and then I asked him if he’d like to grab a coffee the next time he was in town.

He agreed to do a Wellness Almanac takeover for us. His was the first to include Rick Mercer style rants by way of introduction and studio tours and a celebration of mason jars. He even gave a peek at the process behind a just-finished commission, beyond awesome), and I wrote a column about him.

I’ve been following his art – and his success (i.e. WINNING the IDEA Award this year, being written up in the Pique, being one of 25 people in Canada to win a $1000 bursary from CP, even being voted the community’s favourite artist in the Best of Pemberton 2018? Just planting a seed ;)) – like an unashamed fan-girl ever since.

Recently, he shared this, A Brief History of Lil’wat, one of his latest works and gave permission for us to share it here.

(You can tune in to his instagram at instagram.com/prettyboy_dangerous.)

Nelson has been studying at Emily Carr since 2015. When we talked last year, I asked him what the Lil’wat “art” style or tradition is.

levi Nelson intertribal 2017

Inter-Tribal  diptych, 2017
24 X 48 inches, silkscreen ink on canvas
by Levi Nelson

He showed me a photo of one of his paintings, Inter-Tribal, and as I exclaimed over the colours, he explained that an inter-tribal refers to the time, when you go to a powwow, that is a distinct category of dance from the traditional dancers and fancy dancers. Inter-tribal is when everyone is invited out to dance – First Nations, non-First Nations, anybody, you can be wearing your street clothes.

In Inter-Tribal, Nelson integrated North-west Coast shapes with Interior Salish rock paintings, found in Lil’wat territory, playing with the use of Technicolor, non traditional colours, “to comment on where we’re at as a people now, who are we, now, that we’ve been fully westernized.”

What’s the Lil’wat tradition? I asked him.

“I really don’t know,” he admitted.

“I haven’t come across any traditional art in museums from Lil’wat Nation, besides baskets. Basket weaving. I think that was our form of art. There were also a lot of tools that were carved. I saw a wooden floater for nets that was carved with traditional faces.  But all thoughout the territory, there’s a lot of rock paintings.”

He talked about Bill Reid’s early work – what a cultural mish-mash it was, a bunch of different figures without proper context, with no real meaning. Reid’s work evolved, into master pieces like Raven and the First Man. “He had to find his way,” observed Nelson.

Raven and the First Man

How to you make art out of your culture and stories and traditions when they have been silenced, stolen, damaged? Reid was trying to redefine First Nations art after First Contact, after residential school, after the banning of the potlatch, the prohibition of traditional ceremonies.

Even after that ban was lifted, First Nations people found their artefacts taken away, their traditional masks, their ceremonial masks taken away. Church authorities declared them to be evil, their dances were evil, representations of the devil.

“I guess he was kind of exploring – where do we go from here.”

Art is Nelson’s tool for exploring that question, too.

“Our stuff was taken away. We need to rebuild ourselves. I think that’s what a lot of First Nations people are doing with their work –  preserving our culture, and pushing it back out into the world, and saying, you didn’t kill us, we’re still here, and we’re not assimilated at all.

“I go back to this idea that I’m sitting here speaking to you in English, which is my first language. I think in English, I’m getting A+ on my art history exams. It makes me sad. I still have this connection to my culture, not through my Nation’s traditional art, but being inspired by what other people are doing, and dancing with my mom’s Iswalh dance group and singing our songs which are thousands of years old. But I’m also living in the western society, with a Facebook account, a cell phone. I’m drawing on western European style painting, of art that originated there, but then, ever since we were cavemen, we’ve had this need to paint on rock. It’s just weird to think about sometimes. I’m still exploring where I am with that.”

When I saw his new piece, A Brief History of Lil’wat, I felt honoured to see the result of some of that exploration.

I don’t have an art history degree, or a very sophisticated understanding of art, so I can’t do justice to what Nelson is doing with my words, except to say that it strikes me as beautiful, important and a powerful reclamation of culture and story and identity.