Saskatchewan art gallery is investigating 2,000 pieces in its collection following the return of a stolen statue to India.
CBC News recently gained access to the basement of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, where the diaries and files of the namesake Norman MacKenzie are kept. They detail MacKenzie’s theft of the Indian statue, but also raise questions about other pieces he acquired in China, Syria and elsewhere.
Galleries and museums in North America and Europe are faced with requests for the return of pieces looted in other countries. Some say it’s also time to debate whether names like MacKenzie should stay on these buildings.
âInstitutions, whether local, provincial or national, all created a colonial narrative. The story was one of defeat. It’s a colonial story, âsaid Gerald McMaster, Canada Research Chair at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and Director of the Wapatah Center for Indigenous Visual Knowledge.
“I think the accounts are coming.”
MacKenzie Gallery CEO John Hampton recently escorted CBC News to a basement door marked “Vault,” entering a series of security codes before entering. After donning blue latex gloves, Hampton opened a drawer containing MacKenzie’s original dictated ledgers from his 1913 world travels.
MacKenzie had moved from Ontario to Regina years earlier and established a thriving law firm. His growing art collection was almost completely destroyed in Cyclone Regina of 1912, the deadliest tornado in Canadian history, which killed 28 people.
MacKenzie and his wife then embarked on the first of two world tours to replace and enhance his decimated collection.
The history of the statue
Hampton opened the black leather-bound ledger and flipped through the photos and descriptions of each room page after page. He understood the history of the Indian statue.
MacKenzie had apparently dictated the story at some point after his return: he and his guide were rowing down the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, then called Benares, when they came across a Hindu temple.
He saw three stone statues at the edge of a basin filled with red liquid. MacKenzie assumed it was sacrificial blood, but gallery officials say it was most likely colored with “sindoor,” a red powder used in ceremonies.
MacKenzie spoke to a man who agreed to steal one of the statues. Later that night, the man took the three of them to MacKenzie’s hotel room.
MacKenzie said he would only buy one because he knew it was “a most serious offense” and that he could have “gotten into trouble” with the British colonial government if he had tried to smuggle the three out. MacKenzie told the man to come back to the scene and hand over the other two statues.
But he brought the third statue – depicting the goddess Annapurna – back to his home in Saskatchewan, where it has remained for the past 108 years.
In writing the ledger, as with others, MacKenzie seems proud to have brought out the rare religious artifact.
âThis is the idol that I have seen people worshipâ¦ and it is a good example of the type of idol that is used by the poorer classes,â MacKenzie said.
Two years ago, visiting Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra raised questions about the statue, first because it was mislabeled. The gallery officials investigated, concluded that it belonged to the people of Varanasi and voluntarily returned it.
Upon returning last month, the Annapurna statue was draped in colorful dresses and flowers and toured several cities. Hindu worshipers lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the procession towards Varanasi.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in parliament, welcomed his return. He also thanked the gallery officials and the University of Regina, who bequeathed MacKenzie’s collection after his death in 1936.
It was important for Annapurna to return home, Hampton said.
âThere are definitely mixed emotions that we all feel here now; proud that we were able to take these steps but also regret and shame, thinking that for over 100 years she has left this territory and been managed at MacKenzie for so long without the same sense of care she receives in this community of origin, âhe said.
There are now questions about other works in the MacKenzie Collection.
MacKenzie’s tours have taken him across Asia; he amassed a particularly large collection from China. Back then, many desperate and hungry Chinese were selling whatever they had to survive.
According to MacKenzie’s own notes – which are also recounted in a 2010 newspaper article by University of Regina Emeritus Professor Gail Chin – he spoke to a Japanese diplomat about his desire to own a “Chinese idol of value “.
The man directed MacKenzie to two temples in the town of Soochow, now known as Suzhou, where MacKenzie would find a monk “so hungry he would trade food for an icon.”
This is exactly what MacKenzie did. He placed the icon in his carry-on baggage and brought it back to Canada. This bronze seated Buddha is still seated in the basement of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
Chin researched MacKenzie’s Chinese collection, including the Buddha statue. In the 2010 article, she said MacKenzie’s goal of bringing world art to the Canadian prairies was noble on a level. But on closer inspection, she writes, MacKenzie “wishes others would be in awe of her tastes, wealth and social standing.”
In an interview with CBC News this week, Chin was asked how she felt for Norman MacKenzie today. She paused a few seconds before answering.
âWell, I suspect Norman MacKenzie would probably ask me to shine his shoes,â said Chin, a third-generation Chinese Canadian.
âIt was the social order back then, and I accept it. Society has changed, evolved. At least I hope so. Because with indigenous peoples, we all hope and pray for reconciliation. “
There are also questions about MacKenzie’s acquisitions of sacred religious objects from other countries.
In 1930, MacKenzie purchased a sculpture used for a funeral service in Syria’s Palmyra region from the controversial dealer Edgar Banks.
According to the journal Syria Archeology, Art and History, Banks looted dozens of sites across the Middle East and was fired by the University of Chicago and other institutions for his unscrupulous practices in the years leading up to the sale. at MacKenzie.
Reconciliation as a central objective
The MacKenzie Collection also contains dozens of works of Indigenous art from North America. Much of this was purchased directly from First Nations artists, but it will all be part of the 2,000-piece review currently underway, said Hampton, who grew up in Regina and is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. in the southern United States.
Not all First Nations or international art has been stolen or unethically obtained, said McMaster, a citizen of the Siksika Nation in Alberta, who grew up in the Red Pheasant Cree Nation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
But that was largely, he said, and the truth must come out.
The “colonial mindset” that allowed MacKenzie to steal art is the same mindset that allowed powerful white men to create the residential school system, McMaster said.
McMaster said three things must happen at the MacKenzie and other galleries once the truth comes out.
First, the talents and rights of these artists and cultures must be recognized.
Second, items should be returned to their rightful owners and communities, to the extent possible.
Third, it is time to debate whether to keep names like MacKenzie in galleries and museums.
Floyd Favel, curator of the Chief Poundmaker Museum, a new gallery and museum in the Poundmaker Cree Nation near North Battleford, Sask., Agreed. His main objective is to repatriate all the stolen objects to his First Nation.
“One of the root causes of the possession of works of art or artifacts stolen by large institutions is due to racism; these institutions feel that these people or this artist or this group are not worthy of this very beautiful work of art, when we are, because we are colonialists and we have a great museum, âsaid Favel.
It is not known how long the MacKenzie investigation will take. The gallery hopes to hire someone dedicated to this work and is looking for funding sources, Hampton said.
While some of MacKenzie’s actions have been deplorable, Hampton said, any discussion should balance these âvery glaring blind spotsâ with the positives. For example, MacKenzie firmly believed that art should be seen by everyone, even hosting exhibitions for the general public in his own home.
As for the gallery itself, which opened two decades after MacKenzie’s death, it was the first in Canada to host an exhibition of Indigenous artists. In recent years, many of its curators and senior executives have been aboriginal and come from a variety of backgrounds. And reconciliation through art is now one of the gallery’s central goals, said Hampton.
âI think there is still a lot to admire about Norman MacKenzie and the way he has built his collection and thought about the community here,â said Hampton. “There’s a lot to celebrate, and then there are those things that he needs to be held accountable for.”