For the past several weeks, the KPU Surrey Library has displayed works of art by two young Indigenous artists, Atheana Picha and Kelsey Sparrow. Picha is a member of the Kwantlen First Nation, Sparrow’s father is of Musqueam descent, and her mother is a member of the Whitefish River First Nation.
Picha creates colourful three-piece paintings which, when brought together, display a full face, and Sparrow’s Stares in Coast Salish examines the effect memes can have on pop culture and social issues.
“It started out [as] a meme that I posted on Instagram,” says Sparrow. “A friend thought it would be a good idea as an art piece.”
Picha and Sparrow both discovered their passion for art at a young age and began integrating their Indigenous heritage into their artwork. They grew up surrounded by Coast Salish art in their childhood homes.
“Colour is what impacted me when I was in high school. Both of my parents had a lot of Native art around the house,” says Picha. “Coast Salish art is all about design versus default. It’s heavier in design language because it’s all about the silhouetting.”
Design language means using patterns, colours, and techniques to communicate with your audience. When the foundation is done, the artists add their own unique touches to make it their own.
Unfortunately, Sparrow has experienced negative backlash from displaying her art in galleries and exhibits.
“When I incorporate my art with my ethnicity, I often name my pieces in my traditional language, Halkomelem,” says Sparrow. “People would interpret and confront my work because I had made it in my traditional language.”
The growing number of Coast Salish artists being featured in galleries may sometimes be perceived as a political statement given that the names of the artwork are in their traditional language. However, throughout history, Indigenous art was stolen from their communities to be put into settler-owned museums. Besides the fact that this artwork was taken away without their consent, their art was also often misinterpreted.
“People [can] read a lot into political intent and aggression … which was not what I was expecting at all,” Sparrow comments. “It can be really frustrating.”
“There’s a lot of pressure when I’m presenting my work in a gallery,” adds Picha. “It feels like it has to have a statement [behind it].”
But, as Picha says, “There’s nothing wrong with appreciating something for just looking cool.”
In June 2017, the YVR Art Foundation awarded nine art scholarships to Indigenous youth artists. PIcha and Sparrow received $5,000 worth of scholarships to advance their art careers.