New mural brings vibrant Coast Salish art to UVic’s Student Union Building

Culture

The mural commissioned by the NSU features work by emerging local artist and UVic alumna Sarah Jim

NSU Mural by Sarah Jim
Photo provided.

“She’s calm…but she’s mighty,” said emerging local artist Sarah Jim about the central woman figure in her new mural located in the University of Victoria’s Student Union Building (SUB). The Native Student Union (NSU) commissioned the piece to bring local W̱SÁNEĆ artistry to campus and to make the SUB basement a welcoming space for students.

“Indigenous art pieces…act as a silent advocate for us. They take up space, sometimes tell a story, [and] show our values,” said the coordinator of the NSU Peter Underwood, who was involved in commissioning Jim for the piece.

For Underwood, the mural was an opportunity to fill the SUB basement with vibrant artwork as he felt the space was forgettable and unwelcoming to students. 

The mural, which was painted over seven weeks, depicts a woman wearing a cedar hat with ocean waves as hair surrounded by the native plants that used to grow where UVic now stands prior to colonization. 

Above the woman’s head, Jim painted raindrops and the moon phases to honour the W̱SÁNEĆ 13 moon calendar and origin story of the first W̱SÁNEĆ man, SȽEMEW̱, which means rain in SENĆOŦEN. 

“I like to incorporate raindrops because in W̱SÁNEĆ culture, all W̱SÁNEĆ people are descendants of the rain,” said Jim, who herself is a member of the W̱SÁNEĆ nation from the Tseycum village.

Since 2018, Jim has been involved in environmental restoration work in SṈIDȻEȽ, or Tod Inlet, which has contributed to her native plant knowledge and art. Through this restoration work she met strong empowered women who shared their knowledge of the land. The woman depicted in the mural honours women as caretakers of the land and also represents Jim’s own journey. 

“I find that working on the land and working in the community has really empowered me as a W̱SÁNEĆ person and as a Coast Salish woman,” said Jim.

Jenna Lancaster, a skilled jeweller, artist, and the Firekeeper for the NSU, helped Jim paint the mural design and said the experience connected her to her Coast Salish roots. 

“I learned a little bit more about Coast Salish art,” said Lancaster, who grew up connected to her Kwakwaka’wakw roots. “Sarah was sharing her knowledge of traditional plants to the territories here, so that was really nice to hear.”

Jim also expressed the importance of representing Coast Salish art’s revitalization on the lands of Coast Salish peoples today because of the decline of the traditional design that occured post-contact. 

She explained that during colonization traditional Coast Salish artists were not able to sell their work to settlers, who fetishized and preferred the aesthetics of Northern region styles, such as that of Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida artists. Because of this, Coast Salish artists began to adopt Northern styles out of necessity and lost their own distinctive practices. Only in recent decades have Coast Salish artists begun rediscovering their own region’s design traditions, resulting in a resurgence and revitalization of Coast Salish art. 

 “It’s important for Coast Salish art to be practiced because of that history but also because we are distinct and have our own identity,” said Jim.

Underwood, who is also W̱SÁNEĆ, agreed with Jim. 

“There’s very little value placed on W̱SÁNEĆ, Lekwungen – local arts. So I think it’s really important that there’s more local art represented on campus and in the city. But of course, all Indigenous art is very appreciated,” he said.

The mural is located in the hallway outside of the NSU room (B023) in the SUB basement. The NSU will be holding a livestream launch later this month to celebrate the work and to erect a plaque with Jim’s artist statement on the wall.