Who gets to re­name art?

AGO reti­tles prob­lem­atic Emily Carr work


Othe Art Gallery of On­tario’s on­line learn­ing mod­ule, Ger­ald McMaster, the for­mer ad­junct cu­ra­tor of Cana­dian art, con­sid­ers the racist ti­tle of one of Emily Carr’s most fa­mous paint­ings. In bold script, read­ers are posed a ques­tion: “If you were to re­frame the term In­dian Church, what name would you choose?”

Four years af­ter the mod­ule was last up­dated, the gallery has an­swered: In­dian Church is now Church At Yuquot Vil­lage.

Since the AGO’s Cana­dian and In­dige­nous Art de­part­ment, led by cu­ra­tors Ge­or­giana Uhlyarik and Wanda Nanibush, re­vised the name to re­move ‘In­dian,’ an out­dated and colo­nial­ist term for the In­dige­nous peo­ples of North Amer­ica, the usual de­bate around amend­ing art’s prob­lem­atic ti­tles has en­sued. Is it his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism? Cen­sor­ship? Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness?

But among the terms ac­com­pa­ny­ing the de­bate, one that hasn’t been dis­cussed is “shift­ing au­thor­ity.” In this case: who has the right to use cer­tain terms?

Be­fore chang­ing the name, the AGO con­sulted with the Nuu-chah- nulth First Na­tions. Carr first saw the church on the ter­ri­tory of mem­ber na­tion Mowachaht Mucha­laht in a 1928 visit to the West Coast. The paint­ing was first ex­hib­ited in 1929 with the ti­tle In­dian Church, Friendly Cove, BC.

The AGO rested the au­thor­ity of the name change with the com­mu­nity most di­rectly im­pacted by it: the Nuu-chah-nulth. It shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated how sig­nif­i­cant that is in a com­pli­cated de­bate that usu­ally cen­tres the artist’s or the in­sti­tu­tion’s au­thor­ity over art­works with prob­lem­atic names.

“The peo­ple of that ter­ri­tory were supportive of our chang­ing the ti­tle,” says Uhlyarik. “The most im­por­tant thing for me was that they wanted to be as­so­ci­ated with the paint­ing. Had they not agreed, we would have gone in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.”

World­wide, gal­leries are in­creas­ingly con­tend­ing with of­fen­sive and dated language ac­com­pa­ny­ing its works. In 2015, Am­s­ter­dam’s Ri­jksmu­seum started the Ad­just­ment of Colo­nial Ter­mi­nol­ogy project with a goal to re­view over 200,000 ti­tles and de­scrip­tions in the mu­seum’s cat­a­logue and re­place them with more neutral terms.

Much of the work the mu­seum ac­quired over time was un­ti­tled. In those cases, em­ploy­ees of­ten la­belled them us­ing the racist language of the era. If the work was ti­tled by the artist, the Ri­jksmu­seum opts for a pre­ferred ti­tle next to the orig­i­nal.

The AGO has adopted a sim­i­lar approach, af­fix­ing a la­bel with an as­ter­isk next to the ti­tle of Carr’s paint­ing that reads: “Dur­ing her life­time, Emily Carr ex­hib­ited the work with the ti­tle ‘In­dian Church’ in keep­ing with the language of her era. The AGO is amend­ing ti­tles that con­tain terms to­day con­sid­ered dis­crim­i­na­tory.”

Re­vis­ing a ti­tle orig­i­nally se­lected by the artist crosses a line in some cir­cles. In 2016, Paul Lang, then deputy di­rec­tor and chief cu­ra­tor at the Na­tional Gallery of Canada, told Cana­dian Art, “The only time we wouldn’t change a ti­tle is if it was the orig­i­nal ti­tle given by the artist.”

Uhlyarik stresses that In­dian Church falls into the cat­e­gory of a de­scrip­tive ti­tle rather than the more cre­ative, prose-like ti­tles that Carr, also a writer, gave her works (and which Uhlyarik wouldn’t change). The re­vised ti­tle is equally mat­ter-of-fact in its de­scrip­tion, serv­ing to spec­ify a lo­cale. When asked if Carr’s artis­tic free­dom in ti­tling her work is be­ing tram­pled even with the dis­tinc­tion, Uhlyarik ob­serves that “we’re at­tached to ti­tles be­cause we be­lieve they open up some kind of way in for us.

“But my feeling is that the paint­ing in and of it­self holds all of the con­tra­dic­tions, all of the ten­sions, all of the is­sues, ev­ery­thing that Emily Carr as­pired to, ev­ery­thing she saw and sketched and knew,” she con­tin­ues, ar­gu­ing that Carr’s artis­tic state­ment is pre­served in the work and not, in this case, its un­for­tu­nate ti­tle.

The AGO will con­sider other works with of­fen­sive ter­mi­nol­ogy on a case-by-case ba­sis, Uhlyarik adds. No of­fi­cial pol­icy is in place, and re­vis­ing ti­tles won’t al­ways be the approach taken.

In the AGO’s learn­ing mod­ule, McMaster writes about shift­ing au­thor­ity. He notes that the church in Carr’s paint­ing burnt down in the 1960s, but the Mowachaht Mucha­laht re­built it in the 90s. They raised sev­eral totem poles in­side the church as a sign of this shift­ing au­thor­ity. The build­ing now func­tions as a com­mu­nity cen­tre, sig­nalling that “First Na­tions now con­trol their des­tinies, in­clud­ing how churches op­er­ate in their ter­ri­to­ries.”

The same goes for the church’s memo­ri­al­iza­tion in paint. The AGO con­sulted with other stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing Carr schol­ars, but it wouldn’t have moved for­ward if the Mowachaht Mucha­laht did not sup­port the amended name, an af­fir­ma­tion that First Na­tions should lead the con­ver­sa­tion in how their cul­ture is de­picted in art­work.

It’s ap­pro­pri­ate that this shift has come via a Carr piece. There have been vol­umes writ­ten about the po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure – a white artist who ap­pro­pri­ated (or maybe you’re of the camp that prefers “was in­flu­enced by”) the cul­ture of the First Na­tions of the Bri­tish Columbian coast.

Much more could be writ­ten about how rad­i­cal it re­ally is for First Na­tions to have the au­thor­ity to change colo­nial­ist de­pic­tions of their cul­ture. chrisr@nowtoronto.com | @mis­s­rat­tan

Church At Yuquot Vil­lage, a paint­ing by Emily Carr from 1929.

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