lessLIE’s Salish Modern/Tradition collection reclaims literacy through Indigenous oral and visual traditions

This collection acquired by SFU reclaims his Peoples’ narrative through seven paintings

paintings in square frames are lined up against a blank wall, pictured is a large window on another wall over looking the waterfront
Teck gallery is the perfect place to showcase LessLIE’s Salish Modern/Tradition with its view of the waterfront. Rachel Topham Photography / SFU

By: Jocelyn Stevens, SFU Student

SFU’s Teck Gallery is featuring an art collection by lessLIE, a “Coast Salish artist from the Cowichan Tribes,” until September 25. Salish Modern/Tradition is a collection of seven different acrylic-on-paper paintings which are inspired by the ways colonizers have used language as a tool against Indigenous culture and traditions. He combines the English language with visuals inspired by his Coast Salish culture to show the complex duality of the written word, “an instrument for both cultural oppression and cultural survival of his People.” The exhibit is held at Teck Gallery, a small area located in SFU’s Harbour Centre campus. It is easily accessible with a ramp for those who need it to get onto the platformed area. 

The paintings were nicely laid out on the west and east walls, and the view of the harbour waterfront from the large window amplified the experience. There weren’t any individual descriptions for each piece, and visitors were encouraged to view the accompanying support material online. Each painting was painted in a circular shape and framed in a white square, laid out in an order that flowed well.

lessLIE conveyed the interconnected relationship between the English language, Indigenous oral tradition, and visual symbolism. According to the exhibit description, “he argues that individual Coast Salish design elements, such as circles, ovals, crescents, trigons and u-forms, are like the letters of an alphabet, which can be used to visually ‘spell’ any image.” lessLIE, therefore, accepts literacy without sacrificing deep cultural connection, which is a powerful critique of how it was weaponized for assimilation throughout colonization. 

My favourite pieces ended up being the two that caught my eye as soon as I got there due to their colour scheme and stylistic differences from the other pieces. The first piece stuck out to me because of its bright pop of yellow and was titled Sun, Salmon, Frogs and Ravens. lessLIE strategically used the yellow on the white canvas to bring out the different animals listed in the title, and the circle was outlined by a red paint. Although it gave the impression of being an uncomplicated painting, when I looked at it long enough, I could see the subtle shape and essence of sun, salmon, frogs, and ravens. 

The second piece that I really liked was called heART. This piece was particularly striking because lessLIE used white paint on white paper, and was contrasted with a deep, dark blue background to bring out the boldness of the white circle. This made the circle eye-catching and gives it a 3-dimensional look when I observed it with less focus. I was attracted to this painting because of the white-on-white concept, which seems overly simple but was quite captivating. Similarly to Sun, Salmon, Frogs and Ravens, when you look long enough, you can see two fish-like figures using their fins to make a heart shape.

The other pieces were also very well done and used a lot of red and black pigments, which was completely different from the two that struck out to me. We learned about pictographs and the pigments that are used when creating them in my Indigenous Studies class last semester: red pigment is used in some Indigenous cultures as it carries a spiritual or mystical meaning.

Something that came to mind for me while viewing my two favourite pieces in relation to the other ones was that they seemed to be the sun and moon for the other paintings. This was due to the circular motifs, the colour choices of the two pieces, and how they were placed on opposite walls from each other. The Sun, Salmon, Frogs and Ravens piece was bright yellow with red elements like the sun. In contrast, the white with blue detail in the heART piece reminded me of the moon. This made the pieces feel really connected, and illustrated the intertwined nature and storytelling aspect of the collection.

I enjoyed going to view lessLIE’s Indigenous art and his powerful use of negative space. It’s one of my favourite kinds of artwork to see as it can come in so many forms, have many different meanings, and cultural interpretations. The collection is beautiful, critical, and worth a visit to downtown Vancouver.

You can view Salish Modern/Tradition at the Teck Gallery until September 25, and an accompanying support material is available online.