UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Canadian art and cultural appropriation : Emily Carr and the 1927 exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern Morrison, Ann Katherine, 1929-


In December 1927, Emily Carr's paintings were shown for the first time in central Canada in an exhibition called Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern. This event was held at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and marked a major turning point in Carr's career, for it brought her acceptance by the intellectual and artistic elite with their powerful networks of influence, as well as national acclaim in the public press. To this point, art historical writings have tended to focus on the artist and her own experiences, and in the process, the importance of this experimental exhibition in which her work was included has been overlooked and marginalized. This thesis attempts to redress this imbalance by examining the exhibition in detail: first, to analyze the complexities of its ideological premises and the cultural implications of juxtaposing, for the first time in Canada, aboriginal and non-native artistic production within an art gallery setting; second, to consider the roles played by the two curators, Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery, and C. Marius Barbeau, chief ethnologist at the National Museum; and third, to indicate the ways in which Emily Carr's works and those of the other non-native artists functioned within the exhibition. During the 1920s, both the National Gallery and the National Museum were caught up in the competitive dynamic of asserting their leadership positions in the cause of Canadian nationalism and the development of a national cultural identity. In this 1927 exhibition, these issues of nationalism, self-definition and the development of a distinctly "Canadian" art permeated its organization and presentation. The appropriated aboriginal cultural material in the museum collections that had languished within storage cases was to be given a contemporary function. It was to be redeemed as "art," specifically as a "primitive" stage in the teleological development of the constructed field of "Canadian" art history. In this elision process, the curators relegated the native culture to a prehistoric and early historic past, suppressing its own parallel historical and cultural development. The exhibition also presented the native objects as an available source of decorative design motifs to be exploited by non-native artists, designers and industrial firms in their production of Canadian products, underlining the assumption of the right to control and manipulate the culture of the colonized "Other." Emily Carr"s twenty-six paintings, four hooked rugs and decorated pottery represented the largest contribution from any single artist. In their interpretations of the native culture, Carr and the other non-native artists were also engaged in a "self-other" definition, and had filtered their perceptions through the practices and conventions of western art traditions, especially in the use of modernist techniques. In the context of the exhibition, the artistic production by the fourteen non-native artists, including Carr, was caught up in a reaffirmation of the ideological and cultural positions of the two curators and the institutions they represented. The alternate discourses that could have been provided by the native people remained unheard.

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