TALK: Unpacking Art: William G. Lindsay on Colonial Art at SFU
Emma Kenny | May 4, 2017
Charles Comfort, British Columbia Pageant, 1951 (installation view at SFU). Oil on canvas. SFU Art Collection. Gift of Toronto Dominion Bank, 2003.
Some of the most talked about and controversial artworks in the SFU Art Collection hang in the hallway of the North AQ at SFU Burnaby. Among these works include a 21-foot mural by Charles Comfort titled British Columbia Pageant (1951), as well as a series of eleven paintings by John Innes (1925). The Comfort mural is aimed to show the beginning of BC's colonial history, depicting a number of monumental settler moments within one frame. The Innes paintings similarly represent a cultural history where within western Canada, colonialism was widespread and celebrated. A common theme among these works is their portrayal of European explorers and colonists, and one which is highly contested by students, faculty and community members. Discussion of the removal of these works from public display has been ongoing since their acquisition in the early 2000s. William G. Lindsay, Director of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples, spoke on the artworks at SFU Gallery for Unpacking and approached the multiple perspectives on these works at SFU.
Charles Comfort, British Columbia Pageant (1951). Oil on canvas. SFU Art Collection. Gift of Toronto Dominion Bank, 2003. Image retrieved from: http://vancouverisawesome.com/2011/11/12/illustrated-vancouver-vol-15-bc-pageant/
Lindsay noted that there are strong opinions on the mural in particular as to whether it should stay as a provocation for critical response and dialogue or if it should be removed altogether. Traditionally, these and other colonial art works were created to celebrate both the arrival of European explorers and the establishment of the Canadian nation. However, these works lack fair representation of the Indigenous people whose lands the settlers came to and also failed to depict the migrants who contributed to the establishment of the province. Within the mural, the vast majority of individuals portrayed are white men. It includes one woman, Emily Carr, and only one Indigenous chief. Lindsay also noted the absence of any Asian men or women in the mural, which inaccurately portrays BC's history thereby influencing opinions on citizenship and belonging. British Columbia Pageant portrays a narrative of history that is one-sided, neglecting not only the catastrophic impact the Europeans had on Aboriginal rights, health and culture, but also depicting Indigenous peoples as subservient. Lindsay noted how a lack of representation can be just as damaging as misrepresentation and that this has an ongoing negative impact on students, faculty and staff.
Lindsay's talk on the contested installation of British Columbia Pageant begs the question as to how this mural came to be here: who donated it, why did SFU accept it, what is its value, and what is SFU's responsibility to such a work? How can we develop a meaningful conversation around this work given that it is a part of our history? How can we move forward with a more critical discourse and action surrounding the issues it raises? Lindsay said that the Comfort mural was donated to SFU in 2004 by TD Bank. The Innes paintings were donated by the Native Sons of BC in 2003. Unsurprisingly, the Native Sons of BC are not native, but rather a fraternal group of young white men who were "dedicated to the preservation of BC history and the perpetuation of pioneer values" . Upon examination of the paintings, it is evident that these groups donated the pieces with the intent of reinforcing their interpretation of Canadian values in an educational institution. This relationship between the bank, colonial stakes and representation pushes me to consider who has power within educational institutions, and how far does their influence go?
John Innes, Simon Fraser in the Fraser Canyon On His Journey to the Sea, A.D. 1808, 1925, oil on canvas. SFU Art Collection. Gift of Post #2 Native Sons of British Columbia, 2004.
In direct response to the installation of Comfort and Innes' works, there has been an increase in representation of First Nations art throughout the university. For example, an art competition initiated in response to Comfort's mural, Cedar Table Series (2004), invited students to submit artworks. The responses were powerful, and the winning piece included a mask influenced sculpture inclusive of feathers, bullets, and Indigenous symbols. The finalists of this competition, Nate Woodbury and A. S. Malta, still have their work on display across from the mural. Along with the Cedar Table Series, several Indigenous artworks, including Frog Constellation (1995) by Jim Hart and Written in the Earth (2000) by Susan Point have been added to the North AQ. Bill Reid's Bear Mother and Dogfish Woman (1991) sculptures have been placed directly in front of British Columbia Pageant, bringing an Indigenous presence and mythology that is otherwise absent in the colonial works it neighbours. Now that there is a visible First Nations presence in the North AQ's hallways, I wonder if these works would have been installed if the colonial paintings had not been previously introduced?
(Left) Susan Point, Written in The Earth (2000). On long-term loan to SFU Art Collection from Salish Weave. (Middle) Jim Hart, Frog Constellation (1995). Bill Reid Foundation at SFU. (Right) "L'Hen Awtwx" Nexw Niw Chet / The Teachings (2009) Squamish weavings commissioned for the atrium.
Discussions surrounding the mural’s future are ongoing, though Lindsay affirmed, "something will happen. I guarantee it." However, the removal of this painting is a much more complex matter than simply taking it down. The costs associated with its proper removal range upwards of $70,000. Along with removal, storage and transportation also remain an issue, as the mural is too large to be held within SFU's Art Collection vault. Does SFU keep or de-accession it, and to whom? In the meantime, students and community members have discussed other ways to combat its colonial presence. Unpacking Art audience members made multiple suggestions for the mural's future, including changing its placement at SFU, shifting how it is positioned and framed by landscape, architecture and artworks, and installing it in a location where it can be used as a critical teaching tool on colonial history. Considering the introduction of Reid's sculptures and the Cedar Table Series, some of these suggestions have already been initiated. In this process, open, critical discussion is crucial. The presence of these art works within the university, and the values that inform them, cannot be simply or quickly dealt with. Removing a single piece of art does not rid the complex influences of colonial history, knowledge and ethics. Like Lindsay asserted, something will be done. It is a matter of how SFU can best move forward, creating the most meaningful, enduring resolution to this issue, and its foundational roots.
 "Native Sons of BC" KnowBC.com, found at http://knowbc.com/ebc/Books/Encyclopedia-of-BC/N/Native-Sons-of-BC
For more information on Unpacking Art, click here.