An Aboriginal artist takes direction from the forefathers
Artist: WABISHKI MYEENGUN
(translation: White Wolf), 45
Diagnosed with HIV in 2005
Artwork: Watching Over, 2007
18" x 24", acrylic on canvas
EVERY MESSAGE I try to convey with my artwork has something to do with the old teachings that the Aboriginal people have acquired through the years. The main concepts I deal with are the teachings that come from the four directions — east, south, west and north. From each direction come different gifts and properties that contribute to the circle of life. Through my paintings, I try to teach people a bit about how our lives as Aboriginal people should be. We’ve lost our way but we’re gaining it back, so I’m hoping that maybe my art can change things.
All my concepts are always about somebody helping somebody, such as my paintings where adults are teaching children about harm reduction or safe sex. HIV affects my artwork a lot. It seems like I’ve matured all of a sudden and people are interested in what I’m trying to convey, which is mostly love and respect. Whether an individual has HIV, cancer or an addiction problem, love and respect can change things. That’s what I try to portray in my paintings.
I love painting large canvases with acrylic paints. For the most part, my paintings are in colour because I dream in colour and it’s vivid. Every painting I do is a vision that comes to me. That’s what the Creator has given to me. Most of the time, if I see an image inside my heart the colours are already there; it’s just a matter of me putting them in the right places. After the painting’s done — and after an inexhaustible supply of pizza and medical marijuana — I sit down, look at it and say, “Wow! I did that!” I’ve developed my style over the past 20 years. I had formal training at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. That was a good workout.
I’m an Aboriginal guy (Lakota and Ojibwa) going through my own healing process, trying to make it and take care of my family. I’ve got hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver (I used to be a bad boy), but I don’t do conventional medicine. There are alternative medicines that are working for me. When my body’s in pain, I make myself a nice marijuana tea that helps the pain subside, and it doesn’t make me sick. I am so grateful to the Medical Compassion Clinic, which has been my foremost support since my diagnosis. When I hooked up with the clinic and got my medical marijuana license, it was the first step in my healing process.
Painting is an outlet and an expression for me. I believe that the forefathers are speaking to me through my painting. When I’m stressed, I take it out on my canvas and I come out with things that people really like. Hopefully, what I paint is going to touch somebody somewhere and that person will make a difference in the world as well.
I realize I’m not 10-feet tall and bulletproof — I’m mortal. Having HIV makes me want to try a lot harder. I want to do as much good as I can with what I’ve been given before this thing takes me down and I’m not able to paint anymore.
— as told to RonniLyn Pustil
art posi+ive is an initiative enabling HIV-positive visual artists to share their experiences of living with HIV through their artwork. The program was launched in 2005 by CATIE in partnership with Gilead Sciences Canada, Inc.
Photograph: Boa Repro