Syilx artist and community leader contributes to UBCO’s public art collection

Sheldon Pierre Louis’s painting celebrates the strength of Indigenous women.

Syilx artist Sheldon Pierre Louis says the painting he created for UBC Okanagan’s Public Art Collection celebrates resistance and the strength of Syilx women.

It’s titled cax̌alqs, which translates from nsyilxcən, the Syilx language, to English as “red dress.”

“The red dress is a symbol for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) movement,” says Louis, who is an Okanagan Indian Band member and a councillor for the band.

“It took me maybe two weeks of batting around different ideas and design processes. Once I actually got to the painting, I hammered that painting out and in about three weeks,” says Louis. Photo courtesy of Sheldon Pierre Louis.

He tells IndigiNews that the woman’s strong pose, with her fist in the air, says, “We’re not going anywhere.”

“[I was] essentially really wanting to capture the strength in our Syilx women and our Indigenous women to really just showcase … the amount of horrible stuff, I guess, that our women have to endure in today’s society and culture.

“I really gravitated towards imagery of showing a resistance.”

In a June 16 statement from UBCO, Louis says, “As a Syilx artist I have always sought to use my art as a catalyst for discussion, to create spaces where uncomfortable issues can be brought forward into the societal dialogue to be given a voice.”

Art, he tells UBCO, “can be an educational tool, a conversational opening as well as a political weapon.”

Louis says his  work is inspired by his ancestral roots with a mix of traditional and contemporary imagery.

This particular piece of work has many levels, he explains.

For example, the elk teeth decorating the red dress are a symbol of commitment, worth and wealth in Syilx culture and in other Indigenous cultures, he says. 

“It takes a lot of hunting on the man’s behalf to be able to collect enough of those elk teeth,” he says. 

“I was taught that when our men were proposing to our women, what we would do is we would give them the elk teeth. That was, I guess, in essence, similar to … today’s idea of giving a wedding band. So I chose that dress just to, again, showcase the worth of our women.”

He says his partner suggested adding red ochre marks on her temples to represent protection. In Syilx culture, he says, when they are doing spiritual work or going into a spiritual place, they protect themselves by putting ochre on certain body parts.

Fostering allyship, awareness and empathy

Five years ago, Louis says he responded to a call for submissions from UBC Okanagan (UBCO), but he wasn’t awarded the opportunity. When UBCO reached out to him a few months ago, he says he was quick to apply again.

“This was the first time where I would legitimately be part of their public art collection permanently, which it was quite an honour,” he says. 

The 4×4 ft. acrylic painting’s new home is located in Tower One on the third floor of the Engineering, Management and Education building on campus.

“We are excited to add this new work to our collection, as Sheldon Pierre Louis is an important Syilx artist with tremendous talent, bravery and influence,” writes Stacey Koosel, UBCO’s art gallery curator with the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, in a statement. 

The Okanagan School of Education worked with Koosel to commission Louis’s painting. 

“It is particularly important for the Okanagan School of Education community to recognize the significance of Indigenous histories, cultures, knowledges, and identities, reflected in the learning environment,” says Margaret Macintyre Latta, director of the Okanagan School of Education, in a statement. 

She adds that that school is trying to create new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as it’s situated on the unceded and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

“At the end of the day, I would hope that through my artwork, I would start to create allyship, better relationships, more awareness, more empathy,” Louis says.

He says he hopes his work will help enact change within the younger generation because they are more open to hearing the stories and learning about the impacts of colonialism. 

“Generating those conversations in a space like that, I hope what it’ll do is lead to an educational opportunity to the non-Indigenous people,” he says. “Where they can talk about it amongst themselves and their peers, maybe go home to their families to discuss it and start to create awareness of what’s going on for our people and our Indigenous women in Canada.”

Louis is giving an online talk at UBCO tonight at 7 p.m. about his art practice and the new commission. A question and answer period will follow. 

Register for Louis’s talk on June 22 here:


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