The MacKenzie wants your opinion on its next public art purchase

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Transformative Landscapes
MacKenzie Art Gallery

In late September, the MacKenzie Gallery unveiled three finalists in its Transformative Landscapes project to install a new public art work in Wascana Centre. The project is being jointly financed by the gallery and Department of Canadian Heritage through its Canada 150 Fund.

The fund is designed to create a cultural legacy in our sesquicentennial year, and the MacKenzie’s project involves an Indigenous artist, says gallery CEO Anthony Kiendl.

“It’s not only timely for national commemoration, but also in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and increasing awareness about the complexity of our country and its history,” says Kiendl. “So it felt like the most important thing we could do for Canada 150.”

Thirteen artists from across Canada were invited to submit proposals. The finalists are Mary Anne Barkhouse of the Kwakiutl First Nation of British Columbia, Saskatoon-born Wally Dion who is a member of Yellow Quill First Nation (Salteaux) and Duane Linklater of the Moose Cree First Nation in Ontario. Models of their proposals are on display at the MacKenzie into January.

Linklater’s is an illuminated metal text piece that would be installed on the gallery façade above the main entrance. It’s called Kâkikê/Forever, and quotes the familiar treaty phrase “as long as the sun shines the river flows and the grass grows”.

Barkhouse’s proposal, which is untitled, features two bronze horses (one a smallish North American species that became extinct 12,000 years ago, the other a larger species that arrived from Europe during colonization). The horses stand facing each other, with a red granite outline of a turtle’s underside between them. The reptile form references the inland sea that covered Saskatchewan 90 million years ago, plus, perhaps, the idea of Earth being Turtle Island in First Nations cosmology.

Dion’s proposal, Sky Woman and the Perils of Creation, consists of a totemic carving in yellow cedar of a woman and child sitting on a turtle which is itself perched atop a metal pole. One thing that distinguishes Dion’s work is that as the wood is exposed to our notorious weather, it will begin to deteriorate. Like a living creature, then, the piece will have a limited lifespan of around 25 years.

The plan, says Kiendl, is to select the winning proposal in December, with the work being installed next spring.

Cautionary Tale

Recently in Calgary, a $500,000 public art project called Bowfort Towers created all sorts of controversy. Calgarians in general were critical of its look, and the fact it just suddenly appeared alongside the Trans-Canada Highway leading into the city. Indigenous people, meanwhile, accused the artists, who were from New York, of appropriating a Blackfoot burial ritual in designing the work.

To head off something like that happening here, says Kiendl, the MacKenzie has proactively  engaged the public through film screenings, artist talks, panel discussions and art exhibits. There’s also a video and other materials on the gallery website.

“It was a hybrid of a curatorial and public process,” says Kiendl. “We wanted it to be transparent where the public could see what the proposals were and offer feedback before the work gets installed.”

Two exhibitions with ties to Transformative Landscapes are currently on at the MacKenzie. Notes from an Inquest, by Winnipeg artist Jeff Funnell, consists of 90 drawings he made at the 1988 inquest into the shooting death of Wasagamack Cree leader J.J. Harper by Winnipeg police.

Funnell annotated the drawings with thoughts as he listened to testimony in the case, and the exhibition also includes a grainy video re-enactment of the shooting and a xeroxed copy of the coroner’s report. Coming at a time when racial profiling and police brutality against visible minorities are flashpoints in our society, Notes from an Inquest offers some valuable historical perspective on these concerns.

The second show features the sculpture Pioneer by New Zealand Maori/European artist Brett Graham. Originally created for a 2015 show at Neutral Ground called Wanted, it consists of an enclosed, white painted wooden wagon with spoked wheels. The work recalls the covered wagons European settlers used to reach the central plains during the early days of colonization. For me, the sculpture also evokes a coffin being transported for burial, and even an armoured gunship (with horizontal slots for shooting out). Both readings are consistent with Pioneer’s critique of colonialism which, for Indigenous people, did bring violence and death — not to mention Christianity, as represented by two crosses on the wagon’s front and back.

More Transformative Landscapes events are in the works, says Kiendl, including a talk by award-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq on November 23rd.

“We organized the programming to foster discussion and awareness around issues of national commemoration and reconciliation and intercultural relations in Saskatchewan so that the work isn’t just plopped down without that understanding,” says Kiendl.

“We’re thinking about the past, but also the future,” he says. “And how our society could, or would, transform.” ❧