Richard Heikkilä-Sawan // Louise Mandell


Genetikos, Richard Heikkilä-Sawan,  oil, DNA (human semen) on linen, 2016, 213.4cm x 426.8cm (7′ x 14′)
Paradaxe, Richard Heikkilä-Sawan, found objects, copper leaf, MDF board (medium density fibreboard), paint, 2016, variable dimensions

Genetikos and Paradaxe

Richard’s piece of art is a painting with sculptural elements . The painting is 7 by 14 feet. Richard named the painting,   Genetikos – Greek for genetics. It is a cross section of a cedar tree in which forty circles spiral out from the center forming a circle. Coursing through the generations and centuries are ancient genetic commands, originating with the big bang, woven into the spiritual DNA of reality which is language, and archived as unwritten laws of human conduct, transmitted orally as stories. These are Indigenous laws.

A painted face overlays the circles . The face is Richard’s self–portrait – an Indigenous spirit face, Cedar man, moon face, honouring his birth- born  during a total lunar eclipse. Touched by the cry of Indigenous laws which teach loving acceptance of ourselves, our bodies, each other,  the earth and its energy ,  Richard  paints the face of his authentic identity. Colonization has caused us all to lose face.  Fear produces false faces.   Acting from fear we “put on a good face”; we want to “save face”.  Our masks stem from a failure to see our interconnectivity with circles beyond ourselves and ultimately with all of being.

The mouth of the face is painted silver  duct tape – this is the silence of  Richard’s Indigenous  identity redacted from his adoption record,   him closeted as a gay man; the silence of Indigenous laws suffocated by colonization;   of terra nullius, of generations muted by unjust laws; you can’t potlatch , you can’t hire a lawyer; the silence of residential school trauma .

The pupils in the  eyes are a star comprised of 8 colours, blending into each other in the same order as they appear on the gay flag (with the exception of the colour orange). These are also the colours used by the Nazi’s to identify prisoners in concentration camps who they considered racially inferior. The colours were put on badges of prisoners in the concentration camps enabling the SS officers to identify the alleged grounds for a prisoner’s incarceration. Jewish people – yellow; Gays and Lesbians – pink; Non- conformists – black; Criminals – green; Political prisoners – red (a Jewish political prisoner would wear yellow and red); Jehovah Witnesses – purple; Roma – black (brown was later added for Roma males).

The colours invoke parallel symbolism.  In the pride flag the colours  are a rainbow.  The rainbow is the unification of all light into a colour spectrum.    In the context of Nazism the colours represent  separation-   and the possibility this presents for human cruelty and evil.  Shattered light is a metaphor for personal fragmentation. Different cultures have relatively different capacities to contain the paradox of remaining whole and yet to be contained by something that is different.  Indigenous legal traditions embrace this. Indigenous languages  have many words which translate the idea of “all is one”, “of one mind”, “we are all related“ .

The sperm shown swimming to the edge of the frame of the painting is made with Richard’s sperm. He used his bodily fluid like a science experiment. Initially cloudy, he mixed the fluid with turpentine, linseed oil and varnish and it turned a golden honey clear. He mixed this with paint and painted the sperm. Sperm is life passing on – sperm is future and it is hope – it is what we pass on to the next generation.

Richard drew 40 circles free hand, and then placed masking tape between each of the rings in a spiral, as he painted the face. Afterwards, he removed the tape. The tape came off in sections and gathered in a multi-coloured heap on the floor. This heap is the space in between . This is the transitional point – a place of potential. We know this space intimately – it is the space between in breath and out breath where there is an openness out of which something new emerges. We are all impacted and shaped by the crimes committed against Indigenous Peoples, actions and events that comprise the time in which we live. We are shaped by the narrative of this historical moment. The crux of the change is what we will do next.

The sculptural element is plinths being impaled by an axe. Together, we named the axes the paradaxe which stands guard. The axe is a tool that can cut down a tree, or chop off branches that no longer serve the tree’s growth. Or an artist can use the axe to carve a tree into a thing of such beauty that its transmuted sprit of Creation will mold the mindset of subsequent generations.

Richard Heikkilä-Sawan
Richard Heikkilä-Sawan


As a Two-Spirit artist and a graduate of Emily Carr University Audain School of Visual Art, I work within the realms of painting and sculpture. I also like photography and just simply creating art.

I was born in Vancouver, BC and adopted by a Mennonite couple at the age of two months. As a biracial artist not brought up within my culture, I approach Aboriginal themes from a unique viewpoint having only discovered my First Nations ancestry at the age of thirty-two. This allows me the freedom to take risks not afforded other artists when dealing with issues of race and identity.

I draw upon recollections of my rich experiences when grappling with cultural signifiers of utopia/dystopia, violence/compassion, and dissimilarity/identity. My art practice speaks to the human condition within these themes.

My interest also lies within the realm of architecture where the suggestion of ambience is generated from the design and construction of form and space to echo functional, aesthetic, social and environmental considerations. Aspects of these notions can be perceived within my work where the viewer’s eye can meander through my paintings with places to rest along the way.

My palette is often rich and vibrant. Breaking down an image into geometric shapes of both positive and negative spaces often implementing Gestalt principles, I utilize the science of physiological optics where colour engages an interaction—the colour of one geometric shape impressing upon and affecting the colour of its neighbour.

With this dynamic infused into culturally current themes, it is my hope that the viewer will walk away from my work with new insight and perhaps changed.

Louise Mandell Q.C.


On behalf of many First Nations clients, Louise has, for three decades, devoted her professional life to the advancement of their Aboriginal and Treaty rights.  She was brought into the area of Aboriginal law when it was in its infancy.  Louise has been one of the major conceptual thinkers in this area of the law, shaping the legal and evidentiary principles that have been accepted by the courts at every level and found reflection in the existing state of the law.  Louise currently sits as the Chancellor for the Vancouver Island University.