City chooses not to install sculptures on Walterdale Bridge, fearing they will be ‘misinterpreted’

A pair of statues that have been in storage for years will not be installed, the city fearing they could be misinterpreted as “a celebration of colonization”.

The buffalo and the buffalo fur trader — which includes two large bronze sculptures — was commissioned in 2012 by the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Arts Council at a cost of $375,000. The piece was completed six years ago.

On Wednesday, the city announced that it would not be installing art in the river valley at the north and south ends of the Walterdale Bridge as previously planned.

“The city’s decision hinges on the possibility that the artwork could be misinterpreted as a celebration of colonization,” reads the press release.

“While some audiences may find the artwork empowering, for others it may cause harm and induce painful memories. For this reason, it is not considered inclusive for all Edmontonians.”

The two statues would have been placed on opposite banks of the North Saskatchewan River. (Ken Lum)

Ken Lum, the creator of the work, is the 2020 recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Lum took issue with the message regarding the city’s decision.

“The work received enormous scrutiny and approval from city officials,” he said. “It’s not as if the work appeared in a vacuum.

“Perhaps the city is not ready for a real dialogue about its colonial past and the condition of coloniality that continues to mark the present. It was my intention with the work, not to celebrate colonialism as the suggests the city.”

Lum’s website describes the two sculptures as “looking warily at each other across the expanse of the North Saskatchewan River”, representing the wisdom offered by Indigenous peoples in the face of the “foolishness of the rapacious capitalist represented by the white-capped man of a hat on top of a pile of buffalo hides.”

Lum said he has a long tradition of writing about Canadian issues through the lens of art and culture, often tied to First Nations oppression.

Decision-making process

In 2016, the city decided to put the installation of the artwork on hold until further conversations could take place with the community, according to city spokesperson Francis Asuncion.

The final decision not to install the sculptures was made this month.

“Between the completion of the artwork and today, our understanding of the impact of historical injustices on Indigenous peoples has deepened following several significant events that took place in Edmonton and across Canada,” Asuncion said in a statement.

He cited the 2018 hearings in Edmonton for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the identification of unmarked graves at residential schools over the past two years, and Pope Francis’ recent apology to Indigenous communities. .

“In determining the future of the artwork, the administration considered our commitments and relationships with those most affected by the artwork – the artist and the Indigenous communities in the area. “, said Asuncion.

He said the decision was not precipitated by specific concerns raised by members of the public or any group.

Jenna Turner, spokesperson for the Edmonton Arts Council, said the artwork is currently in storage and maintained by the organization’s curatorial department.

In 2013-2014, consultations were held in partnership with council, the town, the artist, members of the Rossdale community and the former Wicihitowin Talking Circle, an Aboriginal organization funded by the town.

Turner said there was no consensus at Wicihitowin meetings on the appropriateness of the final concept, adding that some members were happy with its direction while others expressed concern.

Next steps are yet to be determined but will be done in consultation with Lum, she said.