Emily Carr, one of Canada’s most beloved and renowned artists, lived through a transitional period in Canadian history. She was born into a staunchly Victorian world in 1871 and lived through the development of Canada’s sense of self during both World Wars, dying in 1945. Her art was deeply reflective of West Coast landscapes and of her friendships with the Indigenous peoples who lived along the Coast and islands. To a uniquely Canadian subject matter she brought developing European ideas of Modernist and Post-Impressionist styles. She merged Canadian and European ideas and imagery; she also merged mediums, being a prolific writer as well as painter.
At age 16, I found a copy of Emily Carr’s (now problematically named) Indian Church in a stack of other art prints in my parent’s basement. I shook off the dust and stuck it on my wall. For years it rested alongside a David Bowie poster, comic book clippings, calendar photos of rural England and a metal Don Quixote-themed plate. Eventually, my tastes in decor changed, but I still have Indian Church. I also have two copies of Klee Wyck, Carr’s memoir of her adventures among Indigenous West Coast communities. That pair of books and the print hint at a complex, slightly conflicting image of Carr and her nuanced relationships with the First People of “Turtle Island” (North America).
Approaching Carr’s work
At 16, I was sauntering my merry way along the precipice between the self-decided faith of adulthood and the ingrained, taught faith of childhood. I was looking for a god I could believe in amidst the various features of the God my parents believed in and my church talked about. Somewhere within the thickly smeared green leaves and the worn white wood walls of Carr’s painting, I saw a glimpse of a God who was both who I sought and who I knew, and so, so much more. Indian Church showed me a vibrant, living, abundant God who was felt and experienced within Creation – not a God who is Creation, but a Creation that reflects its Maker as art reflects the artist. As Indian Church reflects Emily Carr.
It is worth noting that just as God is not Creation, Carr is not her painting(s). While we the modern viewer can interact with her across time and experience whispers of her life and personality, we must remember that the mirror is tinted with the historical context and norms of a robustly British colonial Dominion of Canada a century ago.
So we approach Carr’s work, particularly Indian Church, with nuance. Her work has a deep spiritual component but it also has darker, more questionable elements. Where are the Indigenous peoples she revered, even loved in a strange, paternalistic manner? Their absence screams from the painting into the conversations we’re having today about systematic attempts to erase Indigenous identities.
The church stands alone
The only “Indian” in this painting is in the title. It plays into the “Vanishing Race” trope of the 19th and 20th centuries, made famous by Edward Curtis’ 1904 photograph where a line of Navajo nation members ride away into the horizon to disappear into the desert. It suggested that Indigenous peoples were “dying out” – culturally, if not physically, and seemingly “naturally.” This convenient myth obscured the truth of government systems, such as residential schools, denying Indigenous people the rights to vote or to own property and generally to erase Indigenous identity.
While the romance of this trope appealed to many artists, the dark truth remains: here was a poetic treatment of Indigenous peoples which was willfully ignorant of colonialism and aggressive assimilation tactics. There was no place for “Indians” in Carr’s church. In 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario changed the painting’s name to Church at Yuquot Village, which at least restores the specific context and peoples lost in Carr’s original title.
Note too that the church stands alone in the forest. The white crosses in the churchyard starkly stare in mute testament to suspiciously high death rates. We often think of colonization as something of the past, reconciliation as a present righting of past wrongs. But it is not solely history, as the colonial system of assimilation and oppression lives on under modern guises in Canadian politics. To enjoy Indian Church without acknowledging this violent, tragic truth is to be complicit in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian government.
Entering the dialogue
So. Here we reach a conflict of two opposing forces: the spiritual joy I receive from Carr’s painting and the gory truth it masks. Should I, in wanting to support my Indigenous neighbours, tear up the painting and never look at Carr’s works again? No. Carr was sympathetic to her Indigenous friends and the communities she visited; Klee Wyck shows Carr’s genuine love and respect for the people of Haida Gwaii. I suggest that instead we let both opposing forces inform our understanding of Indian Church and Carr’s greater body of work.
That’s what the Art Gallery of Ontario has done. In its Fudger Rotunda, Gallery 126, there is a doorway. On one side, the original Indian Church rests. On the other, Re-Invaders: Digital Intervention on an Emily Carr Painting (Indian Church, 1929) by Indigenous artist Sonny Assu. In bright purple and pink hues, Assu has added a lively Indigenous presence to Carr’s painting through 3D Kwakwaka’wakw designs. Assu’s race has not vanished; they have always been here. Assu’s designs repeat the motion and sway of Carr’s leaves. It is the church that is vanishing now.
We are invited to walk through that AGO door, holding together the beauty of Carr’s paintings with hidden violence, and the amplification of Indigenous voices in the wake of suppression. Listen to the leaves swaying in a sea-breeze. Listen to the elders’ stories. Listen to survivors’ testimonies. Listen to the silence of the dead. Situate yourself in the dialogue of past and present, settlers and survivors, context and (re)conciliation. We are walking through complex, emotionally vivid and ultimately sacred stories, lives and deaths. We are experiencing soul-to-soul interaction with Creation, Creator God and all the diverse peoples who now live with, not on, Turtle Island. We owe it to the missing, the murdered and the grieving to walk carefully, considerately, and to listen. Hold Carr next to Assu, not in opposition, but in the combined understanding of their weighty dialogue.
Go. Walk through that door.
Graves and grief
With the ongoing discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools, the church and white grave markers in Carr’s painting have a sorrowful resonance. We feel the grief of generations and must take time to listen to the hurt, to the anger, and to the hope of Indigenous communities. The tension we walk through now has deepened but it has not changed. The truth is more clear, and so too is our role as settlers: to listen, to grieve, to share and to love.