Point-counterpoint: Renaming art as reconciliation?

A debate on AGO’s renaming of an Emily Carr painting  

The AGO’s renaming of Indian Church has caused controversy.
Graphic by Laura O'Grady

For: Renaming art is small step to reconciliation 

The recent renaming of Emily Carr’s painting Church at Yuquout Village is controversial, but has spurred discussion about reconciliation in the art world.

Originally called Indian Church, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) renamed it to help eliminate culturally insensitive language from the titles in its collection. 

This step won’t only eliminate culturally insensitive language from titles, but it will reclaim the setting of these pieces and create a standard for the future.  

The AGO’s Curator of Canadian Art, Georgina Uhlyarik, worked with Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush to remove hurtful and painful terminology from the pieces in the Canadian and Indigenous Art department. The piece was chosen because the title was descriptive and didn’t change the meaning of the painting.

The word “Indian” is a generic descriptor for the diverse populations of Indigenous people who live in North America. However, it’s hardly even descriptive because settlers then and even now use it to describe any Indigenous communities, regardless of specifics.

The choice of using Carr’s painting to commence the process is important. The painting itself raises questions about colonialism, because it depicts a settler structure against the backdrop of Indigenous land. 

Church at Yuquot Village is a powerful piece, and fellow Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris once claimed it was Carr’s best work. Despite its power, the baggage of its name meant renaming the piece was an essential step to create a space that’s open to reconciliation. 

Renaming this piece doesn’t only eliminate offensive language, but recognizes the community where the church was located. 

It’s a reminder that many of the art pieces in the AGO’s Canadian and Indigenous Art department depict colonized Indigenous land and has sparked important conversation.

Discussion of reconciliation reminds Canadians that we have a history and still feel its consequences—and art is not immune to them. 

Hopefully artists will consider this conversation when they name their pieces. This move indicates to artists that culturally insensitive language is not acceptable in reputable art institutions like the AGO. 

—Brigid Goulem, Arts Editor 


Against: Changing the name doesn’t change history 

Renaming Carr’s painting is an act of political correctness that aims to restore dignity while simultaneously disrespecting the history it depicted. 

Though it was still incorrect to call Indigenous peoples “Indian” in 1929, the title of the painting is reflective of the ignorance that prevailed. Changing the name of the painting doesn’t change the way Indigenous peoples in Canada  were treated. 

Carr’s artwork is featured as part of the Canadian art in the AGO. The artwork at the gallery should reflect the truth of our country’s complex history. 

The reality behind the name of the painting reminds Canadians of our colonial past and the atrocious treatment of Indigenous peoples. Renaming the painting is disrespectful to Indigenous communities because it’s a cover up, and unfair to Carr, who can’t defend her decision. 

The curators at the art gallery have installed a panel to explain the painting’s original name and the gallery’s part in renaming it. Though they claim this is an attempt to “open up a conversation about colonial history” they contradict themselves by erasing proof of colonialism. 

Removing “Indian” in the title doesn’t change that settlers used it incorrectly. This is a part of Canada’s history that has to be acknowledged if it’s to move forward and truly reconcile. 

The title change is an action that best serves those who feel guilty—not those who are wronged—and that is hardly a step in the right direction. 

If AGO were to install a panel next to the painting’s original title, with information about the Indigenous village the painting’s church is located in, and how the artist’s language no longer meets the standards of our society, it would be a true attempt to correct our behaviour.

Changing any part of someone’s work fundamentally changes its meaning and misrepresents the creator’s intention. The gallery should offer an apology or explanation beside the painting if they anticipate negative comments about the title. 

Changing it isn’t the solution.   

—Brittany Giliforte, Assistant Arts Editor 

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.