Sculptor’s use of revered Hindu deity shows no sign of sacrilege
What are artist’s rights when work offends?
He is Ganesha, one of the most beloved deities in the Hindu pantheon: patron of artists and writers, the god who removes obstacles — and creates them. A god of plenty, with a round pot belly and the head of an elephant. Writers traditionally invoke the name of Ganesha, to give them luck and inspiration.
This week, some members of Edmonton’s Hindu community approached the mayor and the Edmonton Economic De- velopment Corp., to protest the presence of four metal sculptures by Edmonton artist Ryan McCourt, which sit outside the Shaw Conference Centre. The installation depicts Ganesha retelling different parts of his life story. The statues are made of reclaimed industrial scrap.
The statues have been in place since last November. But only now, 10 months after the work went up, has the Hindu community raised religious concerns about the display and demanded its removal. Mayor Stephen Mandel, responding to 700-name petition, quickly agreed to have the statues taken down. It was something of an empty gesture, since the display was due to wrap up soon.
But the whole affairs raises a fascinating question. In a modern, multicultural country, how do we balance the rights of artists to freedom of expression, against the rights of religious communities, who object to the appropriation or desecration of their iconography?
It’s hardly a new question. Remember The Satanic Verses? The Life of Brian? Madonna? The controversial Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix in a glass of urine?
For generations, western artists have used religious imagery to shock and titillate, to provoke thought, to critique religious dogma, power, or hypocrisy. Nothing has more power to inflame emotions and inspire debate than the deployment of religious iconography to make a satiric or political point. It’s a powerful weapon, one artists wield at their own risk.
Yet Ryan McCourt’s work doesn’t fit neatly into that paradigm. McCourt has spent years studying traditional Indian art. He’s been crafting his statues of Ganesha since 2003. His work isn’t about critiquing the cult of Ganesha. Far from it.
“I’m inspired by Hindu sculpture. Indian sculpture is underrated, but it’s definitely equal to the greatest artwork in the world. As artists, if we don’t take our inspiration from the best of everything we see around us, we’re blind.”
In part, he says, it’s because the god’s form is great fun for a sculptor to work with.
“I love his effortless gestural ability. And that big fat pot belly, the big ears, the big nose,” he says.
But he’s also drawn to the ideas of balance and dualism Ganesha represents.
“In one hand he holds a plate of treats. But he’s also the god of sacrifice. He holds a goad to move you forward, and a noose to pull you back.”
McCourt is baffled by the suggestion from some local Hindu leaders that his work is disrespectful because it includes elements that resemble a female breast and female genitalia, in abstract form. Traditional Indian art, he points out, is rich in depictions of the naked human form, male and female. None of the imagery in his work, he says, falls outside the orbit of Hindu iconography.
The artist has heard from others in the Hindu community who like his work, including a local priest.
He’s upset that a small conservative segment of Edmonton’s Hindu community could convince the mayor to shut down his exhibit.
“What it boils down to is that I’m not a Hindu, so anything I do is not allowed. It’s just ridiculous. If 700 right-wing fundamentalist Christians wrote the mayor and said that the Gay Pride Parade offended their religious sensibilities, would he shut it down?”
But perhaps the question isn’t so simple. Religious scholar and cultural anthropologist David Goa is the director of the University of Alberta’s Ronning Centre for Study of Religion and Public Life. He’s spent years studying Alberta’s Hindu community. For Hindus, he says, depictions of the deities can have very different meanings.
“In India, Lord Ganesha is on everything — playing cards, advertising signs, lotto tickets, even diapers, I suspect.”
But at the same time, a religious statue of Ganesha can also be an embodiment of the living presence of the god himself. For a devout Hindu, a sculpture of Ganesha isn’t an object d’art. It’s a sacred object of worship.
“In the landscape of India where images of the 100 million deities abound in every form and decorate things from the mundane to the precious, the elasticity of mind easily holds these depictions in their proper register,” says Goa. “In Canada where all of us, faithful and virulently secular alike, suffer from a kind of visual and spiritual starvation, we have lost these various registers.”
“What would be of no note in India stands out in Canada and is assumed by the faithful to insult what they rightly treasure,” he adds. For some, the idea that a secular non-Hindu could deconstruct Ganesha’s iconography to create a secular work of modern art would simply be unfathomable.
Has McCourt appropriated holy Hindu symbolism for his own ends? Undoubtedly. But Hinduism is one of the world’s great religions.
Of course, it belongs first and foremost to those who practise it. Yet its myths and images belong to the ages and to all humanity.
In his haste to appease a few protesters, the mayor, usually a champion of the arts, made a serious error in judgment. Instead of giving McCourt’s divinely inspired statues the bum’s rush, we should be celebrating this Canadian cross-pollination of cultures and aesthetic forms. What, after all, could be more quintessentially Edmontonian, than a Ganesha made of reincarnated industrial scrap?
By giving in to the protest so quickly, the mayor short-circuited a great opportunity for vital community dialogue. In a modern, multifaith city, we must find ways to work out these fundamental clashes in values. Instead of diffusing cultural tensions, shutting down debate just lets them fester. When we shy away from such conversations, we all lose.
“Artists are always working with the sacred, in one way or another,” says Goa. “But the sacred is powerful. It can be divine or it can be demonic. The sacred bites you.”
Perhaps wecan’t tame the sacred. But perhaps we can invoke the spirit of Ganesha, destroyer of obstacles, to help us overcome the misunderstandings that divide us.