Genetikos: Unveiling Identity and Challenging Boundaries through Art

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Genetikos II © Richard Heikkilä-Sawan
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Genetikos II on the NAC's Kipnes Lantern. © David Leclerc

Richard Heikkilä-Sawan is a Two-Spirit artist known for his vibrant and thought-provoking artwork. Born in Vancouver, he was adopted into a Mennonite family, unaware of his Indigenous heritage until later in life. Richard explores themes of identity, race, and social ideologies, often incorporating LGBTQ pride colours. His work, influenced by artists like Durham and Monkman, employs geometric shapes and Gestalt principles to engage viewers. Richard’s art aims to evoke new insights and inspire change, challenging the notion of “coming out” within a strict religious upbringing. His unique perspective and experiences bring a fresh outlook to the exploration of cultural signifiers.

This June, Richard’s piece, Genetikos II, is featured on the Kipnes Lantern. We spoke with Richard about his inspirations, creative expression, and hopes for the future.

What is the meaning of Genetikos?

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison

Genetikos delves into the concept of childhood trauma leaving an indelible mark—an epigenetic alteration or perhaps a lingering memory—transmitted from one generation to the next.

We have long believed that our eyes hold the story of our souls. But what lies within them? What secrets do they conceal? And what about the stripes? So many questions arise!

The use of pink, yellow, purple, green, brown, blue, black, and red stripes signifies the identification system implemented in Nazi concentration camps. Pink triangles were forcibly worn by those labelled as gay men—a symbol that, today, has been reclaimed as a powerful protest against homophobia. The other colours were assigned to individuals based on their perceived beliefs, race, or actions. What was once a symbol of horror has now transformed into a beacon of hope.

For far too long, our voices have been stifled by the colonizers who oppressed us. Our trauma has been held captive, buried deep within. But now is the time to tear away the tape from our lips. Now is the time to break free from the chains that bind us. Let our DNA propel us into the future as spirits healed from the wounds of the past. Now is the time to embrace our freedom!

Can you walk us through your creative process for Genetikos?

I created Genetikos as a member of TESTIFY, a collective of Indigenous artists and lawyers. Working with a list of provided keywords and themes, I had a clear vision of how to best express the discussed ideas. The original artwork is a large-scale oil painting with a unique DNA component: human semen mixed into the paint. Genetikos toured multiple exhibitions across Canada, including the Upper Canada Law Society (now the Law Society of Ontario). Genetikos II is a painstakingly recreated digital vector file composed in layers to enable impressive animations, as showcased on the Kipnes Lantern.

What message or themes do you hope to convey through your artwork?

Inspired by artists Jimmie Durham, Kent Monkman, and Robert Delaunay, I build upon notions of identity, race, religion, spirituality, and social/cultural ideologies, juxtaposed with my perceived individuality. My art investigates theories of the historical significance of colour and the implications of symbolic forms on the political landscape in an Indigenous/colonial context. I use rich, colourful, child-like sensibilities, often incorporating LGBTQ pride colours, as an entry point into the deeper themes revealed in shape and meaning.

What role do you believe art plays in preserving and promoting Indigenous cultures?

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”— Leonardo Da Vinci

Art is about the continuous telling and retelling of our truths. Honesty is crucial in art, for what is the point without it? By laying our raw history bare and exposing it to the light, we all become implicated in our decisions for our future. Art serves as a powerful teaching moment, providing us with valuable lessons.

How does your art contribute to the broader conversation on queerness and inspire greater understanding and acceptance?

As an artist, I aim to create art that starts meaningful conversations and encourages contemplation. By exploring culturally current themes, I strive to provoke viewers to consider and reconsider their own perspectives.

Can you share any upcoming projects or exhibitions you have planned?

I am investigating themes and ideas for a possible solo exhibition. In addition, I am also interested in exploring Drag Culture.

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