Lou-ann Neel likes parts of the British Columbia flag, but overall “thought it was too plain.” So the First Nations artist “decided to dress it up” with Kwakwaka’wakw elements for the province’s 150th anniversary.
“I wanted to take the basic shapes that we have and use in almost all of our artwork, the ovoid and the split U,” she said. “What I had in mind was creating a co-opted layer that embeds all of our shapes from our art into the flag.”
It sounds simple, but makes a dramatic difference. Neel’s design adds a fresh layer to the flag, while using the old flag as a base. It feels both new and historic, like it has always been there. And it’s uniquely British Columbian.
Neel did all this digitally — there is no physical flag. She doesn’t really expect it to be adopted as the new provincial flag — she just whipped it up for fun, and partly as an exercise in cultural appropriation. She unveiled it at the end of July on her Facebook and Twitter pages, where it has been well received.
“For me to kind of co-opt the flag of B.C., and make it my own … on the one hand, I was thinking as a First Nations person I’m here, and I want to see this flag to represent me, in the way I would do it,” she said.
“But on the other hand, [I know] that doing so is a form of appropriation, and sort of pushing the envelope on that discussion. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen anybody come back and say: ‘Hey, you appropriated the B.C. flag.’ ”
The current flag was brought in by Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett on June 22, 1960. Until then, B.C. didn’t have a flag.
The colourful design features the Union Jack, a gold crown, blue ocean waves, and a golden sunset. Initially, Bennett had proposed another design, but it was derided so much he switched to a design based on a B.C. coat of arms from 1906.
Neel started off her flag by placing split U’s in the red middle band around the crown in the Union Jack.
“I wanted the Union Jack symbolism to be taken over by those U-shapes, although they’re sideways,” said Neel, who was born in Alert Bay and grew up in Victoria. “It puts energy toward the crown, coming from the people. There’s seven generations on either side, so seven split U’s to represent that, seven forward and seven back,” since B.C. joined Confederation on July 20, 1871.
The bottom of Neel’s flag is a stunner — she turns the sunset into “an abstract of an eye.”
“That’s the same kind of eye that you would see in an orca or a thunderbird [in First Nations artwork], it’s the same common shape,” she said. “I added into the rays circles and very abstract split U’s. It’s very abstracted by its sending all of that energy out.”
Neel is the granddaughter of the renowned First Nations artist Ellen Neel, who designed one of the totem poles in Stanley Park. Her great-uncle is another famous artist, Mungo Martin, as was her great-grandfather, Charlie James.
She is the acting head of Indigenous Collections and the Repatriation Department at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.