In 1928, artist Emily Carr visited Yuquot, a Mowachaht/Muchalaht village on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, and painted the Catholic church located there. As she worked, Carr took some artistic license – she moved the church cemetery and heightened the forest to increase the dramatic relationship between the building and the trees.
Carr titled the painting Indian Church. “Carr would have used the language of the day, and ‘Indian’ was the word of her day,” says Wanda Nanibush, AGO Curator of Indigenous Art. “But that word has the power to hurt – it denigrates and discriminates against Indigenous people.”
The AGO seeks to be a welcoming space to all people, reflecting the diversity of the city we call home. As part of our collection reinstallation to better reflect the nation to nation status in Canada and the multiplicity of stories in Canada, it was time to explore a new name – one that wouldn’t further discrimination, but acknowledge the past while looking to the future.
“We have to ask: ‘What was it that so compelled Emily Carr to paint this site? What was she trying to convey?’ This is important to consider as her own artistic expression. She captured the tremendous beauty and natural force of the forest as it engulfs and overpowers this man-made structure. The title then gives specificity, accuracy to the site as an up-to-date description of the work while at the same time acknowledging the painting’s history and the title Carr herself used when she exhibited it during her lifetime,” says Georgiana Uhlyarik, Frederik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art.
In 1912, she returned from France, to focus on depicting the villages and the totem poles she believed were part of a disappearing way of life. She was respectful of the people she visited and painted, but some of her beliefs were limited and reveal her own internalized colonialism – that the people and cultures were “vanishing” entirely, and that these changes were “inevitable.” The respect she held for the different coastal Nations and peoples, while not always questioning the colonialism of her time reveal a degree of complexity in her thinking and artistic ambition.
At the same time, AGO curators wanted to reflect the perspective of the First Nation community where the church was located. Carr’s painting depicts a Mowachaht/Muchalaht space. We reached out to the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation (member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council) and the band administration connected us to Margarita James, a Mowachaht/Muchalaht Elder, who supported the name change and the accompanying label text. The new name is more specific – explaining to the viewer where the church was painted.
Today the church is undergoing a large renovation project, led by the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society. Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper quoted Margarita James, the society’s president and Mowachaht/Muchalaht Elder, on the initiative. “A lot of nations choose to tear down their churches. But because some of the Elders got married there – there were a lot of nice community events there – Elders at that time chose to keep it.”
Around the world museums are grappling with the issue of discriminatory language. In 2015, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum announced it was removing offending language from titles in its collection. Martine Gosselink, head of the museum’s history department, explained, “The point is not to use names given by whites to others.”
For the AGO, the point is not to ignore the original title and its harmful language. The Carr painting, currently on view at the AGO, is accompanied by panel text that talks about the painting’s history, including the original name, the artist’s intent and the reasoning behind the decision to change its name.
The title change is part of new approaches in our Indigenous and Canadian galleries. Most landscape paintings now have land acknowledgements to recognize that First Nations people have been connected to the land for generations. Gallery text also appears in English, French and Anishinaabemowin out of respect to the original nation whose land the AGO stands on.
Emily Carr’s Church in Yuquot Village is currently on view in Gallery 126. The Indigenous and Canadian collections at the AGO are free with General Admission and the Gallery is free every Wednesday evening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
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