In response to the publicity around the taking down of the Cornwallis statue in Halifax, NS, Indian & Cowboy is interested in examining the broader issues of how colonialism is marked by monuments on the land. In this piece, visual artist and curator, Joi Arcand, examines some of those implications and includes the perspective of photo-based artist and curator, Jeff Thomas.
BY: JOI T. ARCAND
On July 15, when Mi’kmaq activists were gathering in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to negotiate the removal of the Edward Cornwallis monument, I was at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, Alberta unveiling a new public art commission that celebrates Cree language revitalization. As an Indigenous artist making public works, I think about the visual repercussions of signs and monuments a lot, so I was closely following the events taking place 5000 km’s to the east of where I happened to be.
The statue of Cornwallis is a monument to genocide; he is the military officer who “founded” Halifax for the British in 1749 and also issued an order known as the scalping proclamation, which offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person. After negotiations, the statue was covered by a tarp and will remain in Cornwallis park until further recommendations are made. Though the statue still stands, this action has allowed us to imagine what the removal of such a monument could mean for others like it across the country.
Where would you go if you could leave this place?
Immediately, I thought of the work of photo-based artist and curator Jeff Thomas, who has been working closely and thoughtfully with the idea of monuments for decades. Since 1992, Thomas has interacted with the Indian Scout who sat at the feet of the Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa from 1924-1999. During the first interaction, before taking his portrait, Thomas asked the Scout, “Where would you go if you could leave this place?” A few years later, after conversations started by the Assembly of First Nations in 1996 – which included the action of covering the statue with a blanket – the decision was made to move the Scout from Nepean Point to Major’s Hill Park.
Thomas was, as he recalls, “one of the few (if only one) who thought the monument should stay as it is. I felt that the monument offered opportunities to address colonization and nation building, from an Indigenous perspective. Where else can you find a public space with such a prominent monument and take action to address its one-sided message? My feeling about any such white-washing is how it creates amnesia.”
I asked Thomas what he thought about the actions in Halifax to remove the Cornwallis statue and what he envisions for the future. “My first reaction to the removal was, yes. But like the vacant platform where the Indian Scout resided, very few people remember what had been there. Now people sit on the platform and enjoy the majestic view of Parliament Hill. And the Indian Scout sits just across the street, out of sight and out of mind.” He adds that “There is no plaque at the Champlain site addressing the removal of the Indian figure. That is a very unfortunate error in addressing the issue.”
Thomas believes the statue should be removed, “When I really consider the outcome of the two monuments, Cornwallis should go – but something has to take its place. What is that? The very least it is a historical plaque.” What Thomas imagines in its place is an exciting proposition. He asks, “Wouldn’t it be a great gesture, on the part of the city, to commission an Indigenous artist to come up with a culturally sensitive alternative?”
Signs of the Times
Thomas’s question brings to mind the work of many Indigenous artists who have taken over public spaces, whether they are commissioned pieces, public art interventions, or street art and graffiti. Thomas’s own solution to the empty space left at the foot of the Champlain monument was to “Seize the Space” – a portrait series where he photographed 230 people in the place where the Scout once occupied.
These interventions labeled as “street art” and “tagging” have been practiced by Indigenous peoples for millennia. Cree/Metis artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle says, “the notion of tagging is so old school that it’s ancient when one recalls the repeating petroglyphs and pictographs that make their own trail across the land.”
In her 2004 project, uronndnland (wapahta oma iskonikan askiy, which translates to “look at this leftover strip of land”) L’Hirondelle marked the ditch next to the TransCanada Highway with rocks in Cree syllabics; connecting language to land in a very public way. It made me think about how Canadians are surrounded by Indigenous languages every day, whether they are aware of it or not. Anglicized versions of Indigenous words effortlessly roll off tongues: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Toronto, and even Canada. While Indigenous peoples are reclaiming our languages, there is also a movement to rename streets and parks with local Indigenous words.
In 2012, at the height of Idle No More, Susan Blight and Hayden King formed the Ogimaa Mikana project where their first action was replacing Toronto street signs with Anishinaabemowin versions: Queen Street became Ogimaa Mikana and Spadina was returned to the word it was named for, Ishpadinaa. Three years later, the City of Toronto and the Dupont by the Castle Business Improvement Area responded by installing “official” versions of the signs. What began as a DIY street art intervention has resulted in “official” changes in the urban landscape. While these gestures may be symbolic in nature (ie. we still want the land back), they are relatively simple ones that can be recreated by municipalities who might be attempting to make moves towards reconciliation.
I am excited by Thomas’s proposition that the Cornwallis statue should be replaced with Indigenous art, and I wonder what that might look like. Indigenous monuments are not always statues made of bronze and stone, though they can be. Out of necessity, monuments to murdered and missing Indigenous women & girls are being built as public sites to grieve and memorialize. Indigenous monuments can also be the actions we take every day to live our identities; they are present in our dances and songs and reverberate whenever we speak our languages.
Unveiling a public artwork that asserts Indigenous presence at the same time a colonial monument was ceremoniously being covered up was an interesting space to find myself in. It made me hopeful that the future Indigenous peoples have imagined is within reach and that the momentum created in Halifax this summer will continue to grow. Whatever decision is made about Cornwallis, I know that Indigenous artists and activists will continue to remind the public of our colonial histories; while celebrating our survival. And to borrow from Thomas: “Seize the space!”
THE ART OF JOI T. ARCAND
Joi T. Arcand is a photo-based artist from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, who currently resides in Ottawa, Ontario