Photo: 2020 Awardee, Lou-ann Neel
Kwagiulth artist, Lou-ann Neel, is the Curator, Indigenous Collections and A/Head of Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department at the Royal BC Museum. As well, she’s a visual artist – working with digital art, carving, sewing, and more recently oil painting. She is an arts’ advocate, a community volunteer, and a protector of Indigenous arts.
BC Achievement had the privilege of speaking with Lou-ann, a recipient of the 2020 Fulmer Award, following the public’s positive reaction to her re-design of the BC flag. It became so popular that The Flag Shop contacted her after getting swamped with requests to buy the flag.
“Not even remotely close. Was not my intention at all.” Lou-ann answers when asked if she expected this kind of pick up, “I realized this year it was BC’s 150th birthday and because the news of the children’s’ gravesites, we weren’t going to be celebrating. Even non-Indigenous people didn’t want to celebrate. I was so moved by that. If I had any doubts about us having support around us, those fell away really quick.”
“I had always meant to change the flag so made my own version, and I shared it online a couple of days before BC Day and it got lots of shares. Two weeks later, John Mackie from the Vancouver Sun called and said there was a lot of hoopla around the flag and he did a story. And that’s when it grew. I was doing interviews every day. I just wanted a discussion out of it. The Flag Shop called and asked if I’d be willing to make this a flag and we figured we’d just do a small run of 100 to respond to the attention. And it hasn’t stopped There’s about 300 people on the list waiting to get one!”
Lou-ann was not afraid to start the conversation about BC’s flag and it’s an approach she takes often in her work. “If I’ve given my all, I’ve got nothing to lose on any front. People fear what they can potentially lose. I was like that at the beginning of my career but then I gained my certainty. Now I’ll just say it.” Advice she received from an elder years ago reminds Lou-ann that she only has to be true to herself first and the rest will flow from there. “Stop giving away your power, that was my biggest lesson. Finding my power in my art.”
With this certainty grounding her, Lou-ann frequently shares her art on social media. It reflects what’s happening around her and she always seems to be creating something new in response. When asked how art serves her during times of community discomfort such as the recent discovery of the grave sites of Indigenous children in BC, she says art grounds her. “It’s my touchstone and balance. I can process. I’ll take my computer to the beach and go and think and offer some prayers and allow that ocean energy and salt water to cleanse away residue energy off of me.”
“Other times it’s a knee jerk reaction to things that are going on and I think I have to say something. The images are more powerful than text sometimes.”
It’s in times like these that Lou-ann wants her art to bring hope to others. She thinks about one of the first times that she realized her art could be more than just self-reflection and that was in reaction to her digital print entitled “Four Noble Women”. “So many people, especially women, came forward and said this is so powerful and gives them strength for the day. When I can pop things up on social media and make someone’s day, that’s amazing. I want to have that kind of impact on people – supporting other people and feeling the support back, that give and take and balance. That’s just one of the things that art can do.”
In addition to being an artist, Lou-ann feels she is a protector of Indigenous arts, not just through her work on repatriation at the Royal BC Museum, but in advocating for copyrights for Indigenous artists. She’s motivated to do these things with passion because they align with values she learned growing up. “I always wanted to look out for our artists because I was surrounded my whole childhood by artists. It was probably the early potlatches I went to and I saw the care and respect and wearing these beautiful things our artists had created. Why would I not want to wrap myself in that for the rest of my life. It felt like strength, certainty and power.”
Lou-ann is true to her values and she lives them out through her activism, her art, and her work at the Royal BC Museum. It’s grounded in her certainty. “I am certain, I know who I am. I am Kwagiulth. I have a standing within our system. I have a say. But I also have responsibilities. I usually look at my responsibilities first and do what is expected of me – being a leader and speaking up.”
Through her oldest sister Sandra, Lou-ann learned if she can recognize the problem, she can find the solution. “There are a lot of people waiting for someone else to step up and be brave and take that first step. I realized very early on in my career that I wasn’t afraid to ask the controversial question.” Her certainty in who she is and where she comes from, is what gives Lou-ann Neel hope and the confidence to speak out and share her ideas with the world.
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