‘I hope folks will see it and give it some thought’: Guelph Indigenous activist on Lionel the road artist’s newest artwork set up
A new image of Pope Francis wearing a headdress given to him while visiting Canada to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples, overlaid with words from the Doctrine of Discovery (1493), has been installed in downtown Guelph thanks to the local artist known only as Lionel.
The anonymous street artist shared his new piece this month, placed within an existing bus stop billboard frame near the downtown intersection of Quebec and Wyndham streets.
Lionel was a name they chose after spontaneously scribbling it on the drip-paint piece of the Basilica of our Lady Immaculate in Guelph. “Lionel was my dad, and he passed away and left me these paints,” said Lionel. When social media comments asked about the artist Lionel, the name stuck.
Lionel said their new piece was timely, “and to see the reference to the Doctrine of Discovery over top, I just think it’s an educational piece.”
Lionel explained that after seeing a social media post about this historical document, they wanted to research it further. The Doctrine of Discovery penned by Pope Alexander centuries ago was what they called “foundational” for Canadian systems.
“It’s referencing Canadian law and decisions that were made about ownership and property. The crux of the issue goes back to that,” said Lionel, who explained that laws were built upon this decree, where the Catholic church encouraged a takeover to spread Christianity.
The image of the Pope he used was one taken by a photographer named Todd Korol, and published by Reuters, the artist said. Though up close, it is hard to discern the image from the words.
“In order to see the picture, you have to be far enough away that you can no longer read the words,” said Lionel, who explained that they highlighted some words with yellow lettering to help explain the meaning behind them.
“As close to controversial as it might become in and of itself, it’s just the facts. He (the Pope) did wear a headdress, he was here. These are the words that are referenced with regards to the Doctrine of Discovery. end of story That’s it,” said Lionel.
But it may mean much more than that.
Guelph Indigenous community and disability advocate Mike (O’dah ziibing) Ashkewe, whose name means heart of the river, said that he was glad this art piece is there, and agrees it may provoke deep thought.
“A good piece of art can transform your way of thinking long after you’ve passed it by,” Ashkewe said. “I hope people will see it and think about it.”
Recently, the presentation of a headdress to Pope Francis by Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild at Maskwacis, Alta., affected Ashkewe strongly. He said it was “completely messed up.”
To the Pope, he wanted to say, “You haven’t earned this. You’re not a part of us. I can appreciate that you’re sorry and this is a big moment for you and the church, but a lot of things still need to happen.”
He said he also understands that this decision was not made lightly and that both Indigenous Peoples and settlers are truly trying to reconcile the past.
Ashkewe, who was raised Christian, recently realized he did not want to practice his faith any longer.
“I don’t want to be a part of any religion or god that allows this to happen,” he said, speaking of the injustices faced by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples even to this day.
“I have found new spirituality that has granted me so much more peace and calm, and it doesn’t come at a cost,” Ashkewe said.
These considerations, heavily wrought with emotion from intergenerational trauma is exactly what this art inspires, according to Ashkewe.
Lionel explained their work simply with, “I like to connect, inspire, and provoke.”
Other pieces by Lionel include the bench on Wyndham Street with the question “Where are you sleeping tonight?” and the Begging Bear Encampment Box, which Lionel said “dressed the bear” in front of the Art Gallery of Guelph, in keeping with a university tradition, which invoked thought about begging for basic needs.
Many of Lionel’s art installations do not last, although they are built to, and Lionel said they take great care and respect with the locations chosen.
“If you do anonymous street art, both of those require you to just accept the fact that things do not last. But I love when I meet people interacting with it,” said Lionel. “It’s cool to see what people see.”
In fact, sometimes Lionel engages with onlookers and learns their perspectives. Many people in Guelph and Toronto may have spoken with them without knowing.
“I think what I’m looking for with street art is to have some depth to it, have it work on an esthetic level. But if you scratch a little bit, maybe there’s more to it than that, or maybe not,” Lionel said.
Doing street art is just a piece of what they do, and Lionel said it “allows for a quick fix,” for their creativity.
“It allows me to get out and be immediate and responsive,” Lionel said, but also, that “it’s expensive sometimes,” and can require an assembly crew.
Lionel described putting up the art installations quickly to be “a lot of fun,” but sometimes risky, they said with a boisterous laugh, while holding up a bandaged finger on their left hand.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When Guelph Mercury Tribune reporter Joy Struthers saw the new street art by Lionel in downtown Guelph featuring Pope Francis wearing a headdress, she wondered about the deeper significance of the words within it and the importance to the artist. She also was curious as to how Indigenous people and local activists would receive it.