Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Renaming a Painting Does Not Sanctify Its Colonial Content

The Art Gallery of Ontario's iconic crowd-pleasing Emily Carr painting Indian Church has undergone a name change to remove the problem word "Indian." Its title has been changed to Church at Yuquot Village (1929). I disagree with the AGO's decision.

Certainly, the word "Indian" is offensive to many in the indigenous community for stirring up Columbus and subsequent colonization; however, the Christian church on indigenous land that the painting depicts is equally if not more hurtful. 

The choice to retitle was a poor one for reasons beyond continuing to showcase a problematic work albeit with a tweaked title.  Leaving the painting but altering the title implies language is more provocative than images (Lacan and Derrida would be happy, perhaps). Yet if that were the case, should not the frequent use of the same word in Carr's well-known children's book Klee Wyck be redacted or at the very least the book be removed from Canadian school curricula where it appears every now and then? More importantly though, the renaming suggests that the AGO, although through no fault of its own, is not practicing real decolonization, at least through this particular gesture. Not just Carr's painting of the church but also her totem poles idealize indigenous life (the colourful totem poles she painted were actually faded and crumbling) and thus perpetuate the colonial. Add cultural appropriation into the mix, and her paintings of totem poles, some of which the AGO own, display much more of a colonial history than one word in a painting's title does. If the AGO were to follow the decolonization argument it is timidly introducing, all these paintings would be gone. Of course, no ticket- and government-funded institution could weather the subsequent shit storm. Look what happened with the National Gallery and its proposed auction sale of one Chagall. Then there is the thorny matter of hiding colonial history rather than critically educating audiences on its portrayal in Canadian art. 

Perhaps the AGO felt it was doing the best it could to act as a liberal institution, or it simply wanted to follow museological trends by emulating the Rijksmuseum in retitling art works to remove offensive terms. Either way, the renaming of Indian Church does more damage than good. First, it assumes that once an artist passes, she, he or the estate representative no longer owns a title. By now, in this post-post conceptual art era, a title can be seen as part of the art work. And it is the art museum's responsibility when updating to honour to its upmost ability the artist's intent in making a work: to restore and not to recast or remake. While Toronto Star art critic Murray Whyte is certain that Carr "would agree" with the renaming, that "she, of all people, would be comfortable with a term loaded with the freight we now know it to carry," I am not so sure.  Carr, whose love of the indigenous people has been oft-recorded, could simply have done what many liberals do when accused of racism: go on the defensive and deny. That said, I would not hazard a guess either way. What's more, the retitling certainly does not as Whyte claims, "pay respect both to the artist and the people she so admired." Quite the opposite. The euphemistic title change disrespects the artist's right to have her work exhibited as intended, and even worse, it supports Canada's colonial legacy by helping us conveniently forget that Carr's images were part of it.

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