Four statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity revered as the remover of obstacles, are to be removed in the next few days from outside Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre after adamant objections from Alberta Hindus.
A petition signed by 16 Hindu community leaders and priests, delivered Tuesday to the office of Mayor Stephen Mandel, city councillors and the Edmonton Economic Development Corp., complained that thesculptures - particularly a nude infant Ganesha, decapitated, with a woman's breast and vulva embedded in the pillar beside him - are "a disrespectful treatment of a most beloved and cherished Hindu god."
Ryan McCourt's sculptures, which have been on display for 10 months, were placed at the centre under Edmonton's Art and Design in Public Places Program, a corporate-municipal-non-profit partnership seeking to show large-scale sculptures produced by many artists in the region.
Now, as Edmonton prepares for an October municipal election, city politicians are musing that in future public art with religious overtones might be run by communities that could object to them.
"That's what our petition asks for," says Aran Veylan, spokesman for the Hindu petitioners (the group has also gathered 700 signatures from the community). "We're not trying to censor," Veylan says. "There are private galleries out there for artists. But this art is public and it is supported with tax dollars, so there's a tacit endorsement of this art, which was done in error."
The artist is unrepentant. "I'm so offended by these people who are telling me what Ganesha is," McCourt says. He points out that Indian culture is rich with erotic art. He adds that, according to ancient texts, Lord Ganesha acquired his elephant head after being decapitated by Lord Shiva.
So what is wrong? "Erotic art on temple walls or even in the Kama Sutra stands within a spiritual context," Veylan says. "[McCourt's]expression stands outside the Hindu tradition."
McCourt has been making images of the Lord Ganesha for years. One of his works was displayed in 2005 at the Royal Alberta Museum with no problems.
Last year, when the Public Places program announced the competition for sculptures to go in the Shaw plaza, it awarded McCourt $10,000, basically as a fee to display the works for as much as one year.
In fact, says the Public Places program's executive director, Linda Wedman, that time was almost up: The Ganesha sculptures were scheduled to come down between Sept. 1 and Oct. 15. "We clearly said this was a temporary exhibition," she says. She adds that before this week she was aware of a few objections, but "basically we have as much positive response as negative."
"If the sculptures come down a little early, they will just go into another show," McCourt says. He adds that he continues to be inspired by Ganesha's image. "Sculpturally he's great: the big pot belly, the multiple arms ... he's the destroyer of obstacles and one can see this impediment from a religious point of view."