Comfort Controversy

January 27, 2005, vol. 32, no. 2
By Miguel Strother

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Panelists painted a disturbing picture of colonialism's past and present during the Cedar Table series at Images theatre on Jan. 13, but artwork recently donated to SFU caused the most controversy.

The $600,000, 19-metre long painting, titled British Columbia Pageant was painted in 1951 by artist Charles Comfort on commission for the Toronto Dominion Bank. Last year, the Toronto Dominion Bank financial group donated the painting to SFU.

The painting's colonial depiction of First Nations people has offended some and sparked a special lecture in the Cedar Table series. The series was created last year to raise awareness and promote dialogue on First Nations' issues on campus. This includes dispelling stereotypes, misunderstandings and ignorance of First Nations history.

According to one panelist, prominent U.S. First Nations artist Edgar Heap of Birds, the painting falsely represents the role of First Nations people in early British Columbian history.

“First Nations people need to be properly included in the theme of any artistic interpretation of British Columbia's past,” says Heap of Birds, whose own art is often critical of the historic treatment of Indians. “It is inappropriate to simply have First Nations people garnish culture.”

Those involved in the painting's acquisition for SFU are not surprised at the criticism British Columbia Pageant is drawing. They feel that it's generating a healthy dialogue around art and the changing attitudes toward First Nations people and their history.

“We fully expected (the mural) to be controversial,” says Warren Gill, VP-university relations. “Being painted over 50 years ago, it can be seen to be male-centric and to glorify colonialism, thoughtless resource exploitation and environmental degradation in a way that we all would question today. On the other side, the mural is an important piece of Canadian art and contains some progressive elements for its time.”

He adds, “If the Comfort mural can be used as a teaching tool to provoke discussion of fundamental issues such as colonialism and First Nations experience, then it is a useful addition to the university.”

Another Cedar Table panelist, University of Toronto professor Sherene Razack, who focuses on race and gender issues and the law, says, “I am not sure that taking the painting down is the right answer. It could be such a powerful lesson. We need to think creatively to undermine these types of interpretations of our colonial past. Maybe we should get Edgar Heap of Birds to construct a sign in front of it that says ‘Colonialism This Way.'”

The Cedar Table series organizers have their own idea for raising awareness about the painting.

By sponsoring an anti-colonial art contest Sasha Hobbs, director of the First Nations student centre, says the university community can offer an alternative to Comfort's painting.

“Through the anti-colonial art contest, the Cedar Table series is seeking to raise awareness of what colonialism is and its impacts on individuals, institutions, and society,” says Hobbs.

“I think this event reflects very well on SFU overall because we are allowing other voices to be heard on this and we are trying to raise peoples' critical awareness of such issues.”

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