Counter-Narrative: Brandon Gabriel on becoming a visual storyteller and the power of decolonial art

Art, Features, Off The Vine

by Nick Ubels

Brandon Gabriel is an internationally acclaimed mixed-media artist from the Stó:lō Coast Salish community of Kwantlen. His vivid creative work lends a critical eye to colonial processes that have attempted to relegate his culture to history books and museums. At 37, he has already amassed an impressive body of professional work that spans over 20 years and includes photography, painting, drawing, illustration, graphic design, public art installations, and architecture concepts.

“Threshold,” Brandon’s first solo exhibition, wrapped up at Centre 64 in Kimberley this summer. It’s a testament to the political potency for which his work is being recognized that he was invited to exhibit his work to draw attention to the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, which threatens a highly sensitive Grizzly Bear migration corridor.

In addition to his work as a sessional instructor at universities throughout the Lower Mainland and other artistic endeavours, Brandon is preparing to co-curate an exhibition at the ACT Gallery in Maple Ridge to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation that will provide “a critical perspective on what this colonial birthday means to indigenous people.”

I had the opportunity to talk to Brandon about his formative experiences as a visual artist and how his work has become more politically and socially engaged as his career has progressed.


What first sparked your interest in visual arts?

My interest started a long time ago when I was a child. I recall just drawing everything, even going so far as graffiti-ing the walls of my grandparents’ and my parents’ home when I was a little kid. My grandparents and parents recognized that I really did like doing what I was doing so they encouraged it, they were like, “you know, maybe we should get this kid some colouring books.” That was my earliest memory of me loving art.

It was something that I carried with me all through childhood and adolescence. It was when I was going into high school that I realized I actually had an aptitude for it that was more advanced than most of my peers, and it became something that I was actually serious about pursuing. I knew at a young age it was what I wanted to do with my life and it became my passion and my goal.

As you pursued this interest and passion, who were your mentors or influences?

Barbara Boldt was my first formal art teacher when I was only 12 and she introduced me to the concept of mixing colours and putting it onto canvas. I think that was the first person I admired directly, in a direct presence, but I was a huge fan of X-Men, and I remember collecting all the comics. I didn’t realize it then, but I was doing figure drawing and really exposing myself to a wide array of different types of movements and the composition of the human figure on a canvas and stuff like that.

“I always think that by creating a work of art, I’m adding to this pile of stories that need to be told…”

As I progressed and became more aware of my artistic abilities, there were a few artists that I apprenticed with. One of them is Xwalacktun, his name is Rick Harry, from the Squamish nation. He was an early influence, as was Richard Baker and Chuck Sam, all of whom were really influential in the First Nations-style art that I started to do as a youth, and they continue to be inspirations for my work today. They were my teachers then and now they’re my peers, so it’s kind of cool how that all came about.

Absolutely. How would you describe your artistic identity?

That’s something that I’ve always had trouble defining because I see myself as somebody who is able to really adapt to different styles of art. Having trained in a classic Western style of portraiture and landscape painting and having that artistic vocabulary under my belt, and even learning more of that as I went through my university education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Emily Carr University, I was able to adapt to those art forms really well and also having a strong graphic design background through those formative years of my studies in addition to having studied under great West Coast Indigenous artists. I always thought that my work was a fusion between all of those things, the classic Western style with really strong graphic design elements, like Western design elements informing my contemporary Indigenous style that I developed over the years.

It’s kind of hard to name it—I just do it.

You work in quite a wide range of mediums and projects; is there any sort of artistic work that you most enjoy doing?

I’ve had the pleasure of being able to try different types of work, different types of media. From my earliest memory of wanting to be a professional artist, it was just about being really good from a technical perspective. There was not much energy or time that I invested into the conceptual construct of my work, like having a social voice or a political voice or an environmental one. That stuff was really off to the wayside.

As I grow into who I am as a human and as an artist, I think whatever medium I’m choosing, whether it’s working with metal sculpture or working with glass and light or working in concrete or wood and paint and graphite or photography, the medium is important, but I find it’s the narrative aspect of the work that I’m more conscientious of and interested in. The medium is used as a tool to tell the story.

Bearing that in mind, I’m always trying to place my work within a context of history, my place in the history of my community, what I’m trying to communicate, and how that is speaking on behalf of the community that I come from: my First Nations community, my Kwantlen heritage. I’m always trying to assert that in my work. That message is as much a statement as the visual part of it.


Do you find particular themes are recurring in your work or are there places you often turn to for inspiration?

I think it varies. When I was still an undergraduate at Emily Carr, a lot of the work I was doing at that time was really looking inward. I was doing a lot of work that was looking at my dreams as a place to tell a story or try to make sense of something that I couldn’t make sense of and those artworks are really reflective of those surreal fantasy landscapes.

A lot of the work that I’m doing now is really focused on these processes of colonialism that have wrought havoc on our community over the course of 200 years. I’m looking at that chronology and trying to insert myself and what I think about those processes and what they’ve done to our community into that story somewhere. I’m really trying to capture people’s attention, like saying, “What if we look at it from this perspective?” Because you’ve always heard it from this perspective, why not hear it from this side of the fence? It’s often overlooked or it’s spoken about for us or about us or by somebody else interpreting for you and so forth and so forth.

There’s all these interventions that take place or these different interpretations of who we are and the spaces that are left for our own community members or artists within our community to say something critical or integral about the community are kind of an afterthought, right?

The task that I always challenge myself with is how do I mitigate that or how do I work against that or how do I work with it? It keeps the work challenging because the work is never really done.
I think when your work positions itself within the context of a social justice construct or a decolonizing gaze, there’s always work to be done. It’s a process that is fraught with conflict and all these other issues that are at the forefront, but there’s lots of other contemporary artists who are also out there doing that work as well. I’m thinking about artists like Brian Jungen, or Sonny Assu, or Susan Point, or Jane Ash Poitras, or Marianne Nicolson. There’s a number of First Nations artists I could list off who are doing that type of work that’s really critical. I think I aspire to do that kind of work.

In light of that, what role do you think art can play in this decolonizing process, or play in society at large in terms of changing people’s perceptions?

Going back to that whole idea of taking ownership of narrative, I can just sit back and be okay with this common narrative that my community was wronged by the society that established what we now know as Canada or what we now know as the Province of British Columbia, or even looking on a more local level here in Langley, the idea of Langley becoming this community. I can just look out my window and be passive about those processes and how they’re playing out.

There’s a common misconception that Indigenous communities have benefited from the society that’s established itself here, but the reality of it is that our community came out from under the rug of those processes because there were no spaces where equality was, from an economic or social standpoint, part of the plan. And so where an opportunity for the arts to speak to that is saying, I’m here, I’m not just going to sit by and watch this happen. I’m actually going to say something within the work that gives another story or adds another layer to that story and offers an alternative perspective that can add something beautiful to it, something intrinsic in the telling of that story that’s been missing and say, “Don’t you think it would be a shame to not have that story told by us?” There’s all these nuances that are missing.

I always think that by creating a work of art, I’m adding to this pile of stories that need to be told. It’s not just folklore, these are stories that actually have a historical value and an educational value. That’s my goal with the work. That’s the most important part of the artwork.

The opportunity to reshape certain narratives.

Yes, and that whole idea of the word decolonizing is really important in understanding where I’m coming from. It’s going back to that: the settlers came here, they brought Christianity, they brought Western concepts of technology and then the First Nations history ended and then a man landed on the moon and now we have the Internet and all these things and their story ended and ours began and this is the story that needs to be told. That’s a really oversimplified version of that narrative, but the gist of that story is told over and over again and I think people become complacent in that mindset, this idea that our story is part of this so-called bygone era. Yet every time I walk out my door, I’m seeing contributions from my community that are still being played out in our day-to-day lives that are not seen so much. I think that’s something that’s really important to me, that is like, okay, no just hold on a second here, there’s this part of the story here, this idea of nation building would not be complete without our part in that story somewhere. There are a lot of negative things about it, but there’s also a lot of positive things and I think it’s important for us to be critical about all those things, not just one or two things.

I think that’s what decolonial work does. It gives people an opportunity to look at things from more perspectives than the one perspective they’d been bestowed with.

How would you say that your work reflects or interacts with traditional Kwantlen or Stó:lō techniques, symbols or meaning, mixed with some of the other contemporary influences you have?

One of the things that’s important to acknowledge there is that because the Kwantlen people were situated in a location that the global mercantile enterprise had it’s eyes on, when Fort Langley was established, it was ground zero of the colonial mandate in British Columbia. It’s where British Columbia got its name, it was where the proclamation of British Columbia was signed. It was literally the first lands to be usurped from Indigenous peoples in what is now the province of BC, and the Kwantlen people suffered greatly because of that onslaught of that endeavor and 100 per cent of our artwork and all of our cultural regalia and the visual culture of our people, 100 per cent of it, now sits in the basements of museums all across the world, leaving a huge deficit of identity and cultural knowledge, historical knowledge, even diminishing concepts of family and self-respect, self-esteem, you name it, gender roles, roles of men and women in the home and in the community. That needs to be said.

“That’s what de-colonial work does. It gives people an opportunity to look at things from more perspectives than the one perspective they’d been bestowed with.”

Part of the work that is being done in my community and other Stó:lō communities is saying our culture really didn’t disappear with colonialism, it’s stored away in some basement of some colonial institution who doesn’t really give us access to see those things because it’s more valued as part of the past than part of the present. There’s a whole political agenda that’s sitting idle in all that as well. I think any artwork that has been created within the community — whether you’re doing graphic design or painting, or even moving into the realm of poetry, creative writing, autobiographical work, performance art, like so many other artists are doing; even hip hop is becoming a big thing in Stó:lō communities — those kinds of expressions are a result of that onslaught of exerting power onto our communities and wiping the slate clean of our cultural identity. I think that’s the work our artists are doing now.

I’d like to think and it’s my desire to have my work fit into that realm somewhere, saying “You didn’t finish the job” because these brilliant artists, we’re all are still here and we’re all still saying these amazing things about our communities and we still have that spirit in us. But it’s not just the spirit, it’s the assertion. It’s a political act. There’s a social justice aspect to it.

I think when you look at the whole spectrum of expression coming from our communities, it’s flying in the face of 200 years of oppressive policies on our communities and it’s basically saying, to hell with you guys, we got this. We are taking control of what we’ve always known to be true about us, that we have a sustainable vision for our communities that we would like to re-insert and reinvigorate into our communities. The best vehicle for those ideas to come forth is through the arts and it transcends and it goes to different realms. At least how I see it in our community, whenever there’s an event where our community is asserting its sovereignty to the government of Canada or British Columbia or big corporations that seek to exploit resources from our community, art is represented front and centre. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my work taken into that realm and used as a tool for that by leaders in the community. In the history of our people, that is a high honour and one I am so grateful to be part of because it’s about moving our people forward and putting our interests where they belong, in the spotlight. I think that’s where we need to be moving.

Is there anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t touch on?

In the last three years, the pace of things has really picked up for me and my work. There’s been a lot of attention coming my way, which I’m really thankful for. The people who are interested in my work, they’re interested in the critical aspect of it, these concepts of decolonizing, looking at things through a more critical lens, which I appreciate. That’s a realm I want to be in, but it’s a place I never thought I’d be so it’s been quite a journey as an artist. It’s just picking up now and things are going pretty good. I’m looking forward to the next little while and I think it’s going to be really fruitful.


Black tri-dot
This interview has been edited and condensed.

You can find out more about Brandon Gabriel and see additional examples of his work at