Manitoba to conduct review of Indigenous-themed art after sculpture in premier’s office deemed inappropriate
The province is conducting a review to ensure all Indigenous-themed artwork displayed in ministers’ offices is created by Indigenous artists.
This comes after CBC News inquired about a statue that had been in the Manitoba premier’s office for decades, but has since been removed and will not be placed back there.
Art experts criticized the porcelain figure titled Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man for cultural appropriation and depicting a stereotypical image of Indigenous people.
In a statement Monday, Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Obby Khan said “we take concerns related to issues of cultural appropriation very seriously and will respect the advice of experts when it comes to the appropriate display of Indigenous art.” Khan also indicated a review would be taking place.
The sculpture created by Winnipegger Helen Granger Young had been on display in the Premier’s office since at least 1988, based on historical photos.
For study, not display: professor
“These kinds of works are not shown publicly and they’re not appropriate for public office,” said Gerald McMaster, a professor at OCAD University, formerly Ontario College of Art and Design.
The day after CBC News inquired about the statue in January, the province’s visual art consultant removed it from Premier Stefanson’s office, according to records obtained through an access to information request. The premier’s spokesperson said the visual art consultant is not considering getting rid of the piece altogether at this time, a decision McMaster agrees with.
McMaster says curators do keep historical pieces in storage so they can be studied to better understand the way groups were represented in the past.
Scholars may want to look at a piece like Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man to shed light on “stories of stereotypes, stories of appropriation, stories of voice,” said McMaster.
“In terms of putting them in public display without the appropriate associated information to it around these issues, then I would say it shouldn’t be put on public display.”
According to government policy, the purchase, maintenance, placement, disposal, storage and security of artworks making up the Government Art Collection are the responsibility of the department of Sports, Culture and Heritage.
The province’s art consultant — who works in the department of Sports, Culture and Heritage — briefed Premier Stefanson’s staff about the sculpture, but a spokesperson for the premier wouldn’t say exactly what was discussed.
Permission to depict
McMaster says this sculpture, which was designed by a non-Indigenous artist, brings up many issues such as cultural appropriation and potentially depicting a spiritual ceremony without permission.
McMaster is Plains Cree from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation and a citizen of the Siksika Nation in Alberta, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. There are no First Nations that are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Manitoba.
“It’s not something that Indigenous artists, even Blackfeet artists, would probably do without permission from the elders and the ceremonialists to even depict,” McMaster said.
Discussions around Indigenous representation in art were woven into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action published eight years ago. The 67th call to action asks the federal government to fund the Canadian Museum Association to work with Indigenous peoples to review policies and best practices to make sure they comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“UNDRIP is clear that Indigenous People, whether museum employees or visitors, have a right to be free from discrimination, see their cultures represented in accurate and respectful ways in their own voices,” according to the Canadian Museum Association’s 2022 report.
Granger Young’s work
Granger Young was a prolific and celebrated artist in her time who garnered multiple awards including the Order of Manitoba. Her Famous Five statue featuring Manitoba suffragist Nellie McClung was unveiled at the legislature grounds in 2010.
Granger Young’s sculptures Women’s Tri-Service Monument, honouring the contributions of women in the military, and First Flight, which memorialises the airmen who lost their lives training in Canada, are landmarks on Memorial Boulevard.
Between 1962 to 1982, Granger Young designed a series of sculptures that became part of the Cybis North American Indians collection — collectors items which sold from $2,000 to $7,000, according to a newspaper report from 1981.
Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man was created in 1969. Cybis, a now-defunct New Jersey-based porcelain manufacturer, produced 350 limited edition sculptures of Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man, according to the Cybis Archive website.
Granger Young created the pieces based on research in national and provincial archives and galleries and the Smithsonian Institution, according to a 1983 news report.
“When you have non-Indigenous artists appropriating these stories for their own gain, that’s something else that brings up many issues,” said McMaster.
One of the limited edition sculptures, marked number 36, was for sale on eBay for $850 US as of Monday evening.
Sculptures as official gifts
Back in the 70s and 80s, porcelains from Granger Young’s North American Indian series were presented as official gifts from the province to members of the British monarchy. At least four other pieces by Granger Young that purport to depict Indigenous people and legends were gifted.
NDP Premier Edward Schreyer kept a sculpture donated by Granger Young called Magic Boy in his office until it was given to Queen Elizabeth II as an official gift from the province. A brochure from 1984 said Magic Boy is an interpretation of a Cree legend about a boy learning archery, according to the Cybis Archive.
The British Crown still possesses the sculpture; it’s listed in the catalogue of the Royal Collection Trust which includes more than a million objects held by King Charles for his successors and the nation.
A decade later, Granger Young donated another piece titled Eskimo Mother: Alea to the province as a wedding gift to Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981, the same year Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man was acquired by the provincial art collection through a donation.
In 1982, NDP Premier Howard Pawley showed a piece called Shoshone, ‘Sacajawea’ to MLAs in the legislature as he officially congratulated Prince Charles and Princess Diana on the birth of Prince William, according to newspaper reports. It was briefly on public display in the legislature before it was sent to the newborn prince.
In 1984 the government of Manitoba presented Sioux, ‘Wankan Tanka’ The Great Spirit to Queen Elizabeth II during her Royal tour of Canada. The piece currently resides in the Royal Collection Trust.
News reports from the ’70s quoted Granger Young saying Canadian galleries have ignored her porcelain figures.
“The Canadian galleries seem to be interested only in the old masters and the new far-out stuff,” Granger Young told The Calgary Herald in 1973.
Granger Young died at the age of 100 in April.
A condition report for the sculpture in the premier’s office obtained through an access to Information request indicated the sculpture was very dusty and brittle and that seven pieces had broken off, including an 11 cm pipe that was lying loose on the figurine.
Premier Stefanson’s spokesperson said the sculpture will not be returned to her office even if it is repaired.
When asked why, the spokesperson said the premier has a lot of personal effects in her office, including family photos, and that’s what she likes to see in her office.
Art complicated, context needed: Symko
The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq head of collections Riva Symko acknowledges artists are complicated and a product of their time.
“No artwork exists in a vacuum, it’s always changing. The meanings are always changing … and that’s a positive and good thing,” said Symko.
Symko says Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man speaks to a broader settler tradition in which settler artists have represented Indigenous people — or their imagined idea of Indigenous people.
“Everyone’s work deserves a critical eye, deserves to be put in context and that, quite frankly, is doing the best for the legacy for that artist,” said Symko.
Symko says settler culture has used representations of Indigenous peoples in a way that has reinforced stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and culture.
These types of figurines reinforce the idea that Indigenous culture is “something that can be owned, something that can be collected, something that can be really dominated or colonized by a settler collector or buyer,” said Symko.
Symko says she can’t speak for the premier, and she is not interested in doing the decolonizing work for other institutions.
“I think it’s really up to them to find the ways to think about and consider their collections and the artworks that they display … in their offices that are readily available to international, national and local visitors.”
Art consultant Gilles Hebert did not know Granger Young, but he knows the time period when she created the North American Indian series.
He said porcelain pieces such as these have a long history in the popular culture of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, when most living rooms in North America had figurines or a Royal Doulton statuette.
“It was a different time,” said Hebert. “I don’t think it would have been on the radar as offensive or something to be considered in terms of how it would be received.”
‘Beyond inappropriate’: art consultant
Hebert said when the piece was designed, it’s possible it could have been seen as a romantic work that honours Indigeneity, but in reality depictions such as these cast the subject as foreign, exotic and not part of the community.
Hebert said there would have been a strong reaction to Blackfeet ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man 40 years ago among curators and artists — Indigenous or otherwise — who would have objected to it, but not to the extent that it would these days.
“Given our recent history, the history of Indigenous peoples and the commitment to reconciliation [it] would now seem completely tone deaf to have that in the premier’s office. It seems beyond inappropriate,” said Hebert.
Hebert is working on museum audits which examine public art collections to see how they reflect the current community. He also looks at things like exoticism and representation of individuals and peoples, and makes recommendations for deaccessioning.
Locally, the WAG recently announced the sale of a set of Andy Warhol prints of Queen Elizabeth II in order to raise funds for First Nations and Métis artworks — which makes up just over one per cent of the entire collection.
A spokesperson from the department of Sport Culture and Heritage says the current focus of the provincial art collection is on diversity, the work of contemporary living artists from Manitoba and Indigenous artists.
Work by Indigenous artists was purchased in 2022 including Lita Fontaine, Dee Barsy, Jackie Traverse, Michel St. Hilaire, Len Fairchuk, Carly Morrisseau and Christine Kirouac, according to the spokesperson.