Governor General’s Award-winning artist Ken Lum is urging Edmonton to reconsider its decision not to install his work, The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader. The bronze statuary was commissioned more than a decade ago and was supposed to be installed on the new Walterdale Bridge, which was completed in 2018, but the artwork has remained in storage – and the city is now planning to remove it from its public art collection.
The city says there is potential for the work to be misinterpreted as a celebration of colonization.
“While some audiences may find the artwork thought-provoking, for others it may cause harm and induce painful memories. For this reason, it is not considered inclusive to all Edmontonians,” the city said in a news release.
Mr. Lum, who says he was kept in the dark about the status of the work since he delivered it in 2016, says he is deeply disappointed with the decision, and that safeguarding artistic expression should be sacrosanct.
“I think by the city shelving this project, it not only hurts artistic expression, but also hurts any ability to have a dialogue about the country’s colonial past and the conditions of coloniality that continue to mark the present,” said Mr. Lum in an interview this week from his home in Philadelphia, where he is chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “A fundamental question is, whose interest is being served by the deaccessioning of this work? Is the work really that egregious?”
The $375,000 piece was commissioned in 2010, went through an extensive oversight and approvals process by the city, as well as consultations with an Indigenous advisory group, Mr. Lum explains. He made repeated inquiries for some time about the status of the installation and was finally informed last week that the city would be seeking to deaccession the work.
“There was no explanation other than a slightly coded ‘times have changed,’” said Mr. Lum, who was born and raised in Vancouver. He says he only learned of the announcement when he was contacted by reporters about the news release.
“This is an unwarranted breach of the city and arts council’s basic duty to my client,” says Mr. Lum’s lawyer, Paul Bain. “This decision to cancel the work damages the artist’s reputation. They are obligated contractually and as a matter of fairness to exhibit the work and not to self-censor. Ken will pursue all remedies.”
Nobody was available at the city or the Edmonton Arts Council (which was involved in the project) to speak with The Globe and Mail about this, but in an e-mail, a spokesperson said the city decided to pause the artwork after it was completed in 2016 and this August made the decision not to install it and to remove it from its inventory.
“In the time between the artwork being completed to now, our understanding of the impact of historical injustices on Indigenous peoples has deepened. After much deliberation, the City of Edmonton arrived at our decision not to install the artwork,” wrote Edmonton communications adviser Francis Asuncion in an e-mail to The Globe.
The Aug. 24 news release also raised concerns that the installation site is close to sacred ground. “The area north of the bridge, Rossdale, is protected by law as a historic cemetery/burial ground, and is one of the most historically rich sites in Alberta,” the release said.
But Mr. Lum points out the bridge was relocated away from the burial ground. And the sculpture was to be on the bridge, not the land.
The work was conceived as a criticism of humankind’s impact on the environment. Cast in bronze, it includes a four-metre buffalo and a 3.5-metre man – the fur trader. The intent was to have them stare warily at one other across the expanse of the river in a kind of tension, as Mr. Lum describes it.
The man is sitting on top of a huge pile of buffalo pelts, a scene inspired by a well-known 1874 photograph of a white man sitting on top of a huge pile of pelts. “It’s a really gruesome picture,” says Mr. Lum. The work was also informed by a slightly later photograph of an enormous pile of bison skulls.
“I would find it very hard to read this picture near the apogee of the bison trade [just] before the great buffalo population collapse and say ‘yeah, that was a great moment,’ ” says Mr. Lum.
That bison trade had devastating consequences – which should resonate today, says Mr. Lum. “That near-extinction of the buffalo should offer lessons for this anthropogenic global climate change moment that we’re unbelievably, scarily in right now.”
He says the work is meant to comment on this current critical moment in the world. “What I was trying to point out was that colonial history was not necessarily of the past.”
As co-founder and chief curatorial adviser for Monument Lab, Mr. Lum is well-versed in such controversies. Founded in 2012, the project re-examines public monuments – and the people and ideologies to whom they pay tribute – and reimagines how those monuments can better reflect the population.
Mr. Lum notes that as Edmonton was deciding his artwork was not appropriate, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was announcing that a statue of Winston Churchill would be erected in Calgary. (Churchill, though a revered British Prime Minister during the Second World War, was a colonialist – and has been revealed to have held racist views.)
Mr. Lum says he hopes Edmonton officials will reconsider, and that he is willing to travel there and meet with the public to discuss the work.
“If people want to say something to attack the work or whatever, that’s fine. I’m open to that. I’d rather have dialogue.”
Candice Hopkins, a citizen of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation who has worked as a contract curator with the EAC, has given a lot of thought to this. “What the sculpture made me think of is the absent figure. That’s the figure of all those folks who would have gotten the pelts; the role of the Hudson’s Bay Company and all the trading posts in creating what needs to be better understood as an ecological disaster,” says Hopkins, whose own grandmother trapped fur as a way to support her family.
She says there has been a huge shift in Canada since 2010, with the findings of unmarked graves at residential schools and other evidence of the extreme harm of colonial history.
“The thing that I’m always concerned about, though, is I feel that art is the face of freedom of expression, so what do we do when something is essentially censored?”
Ms. Hopkins, who is now executive director and chief curator of the Forge Project in New York State, says she understands both perspectives. “One of the ways this conversation can be productive is to talk about the role of public art, the role of public history, what it might mean if we suppress that, but also the role of privileging Native voices in an era of reconciliation.”
When asked what she thinks should happen to the work, she mused about installing just the buffalo part of the work and explain that decision.
“What might it mean to install a work that actually honoured the animal? And then how this work, or even this debate, can call attention to that absent figure? And that absent figure is the figure of the Native trader.”
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