Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia
Established in 1949, Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology is not only a premier cultural destination, but also a teaching facility housed on the grounds of the University of British Columbia; it holds a collection of nearly 50,000 works from around the world (with an additional 535,000 objects in the Laboratory of Archaeology). In 2009, MOA launched the Audain Gallery to present exhibitions of contemporary art. To reach that space, visitors must pass through the Great Hall (designed by Arthur Erickson in a 1970s overhaul of the museum), an austere promenade into a grand glass foyer overlooking a cliff view and the ocean below, screened by a guard of trees. MOA’s impressive Pacific Northwest Coast holdings congregate here, instilling an unsettlingly beautiful atmosphere. Adjacent galleries offer glimpses of works from the Asia Pacific, the Arctic, Latin America, and Europe.
I don’t always find the switch between “anthropological” and “art” objects dissonant, but “Playing with Fire” cast a raking light on those problematic distinctions. Steeped in self-awareness and positioned in conversation with its surroundings, the exhibition featured 11 internationally recognized Vancouver ceramic artists whose work employs the “most accessible of mediums” with a “determination to wipe away any craft-based, little-brown-pot stereotypes”—a description that could refer to many of the beautiful objects displayed in the nearby rooms.
Bill Rennie’s Where I was Brought Up: 6949 Harris Road (1990) greeted visitors entering the gallery. From the vista of a step stool, viewers gazed down on a miniaturized memory of the artist’s childhood home. A picturesque green lawn borders a toy-like residence, surrounded by tiny trees. Plexiglas entraps the entire scene, which is preserved like the contents of the many nearby vitrines. It is not a completely benign landscape—Rennie’s home was destroyed by urban development. His feeling of loss and sense that his home was taken away found an unintended echo on this almost century-old campus, which is situated on the unceded (stolen) territory of the Musqueam people.
Several installations confronting issues of “colonialization, assimilation, and identity politics” by Cree artist Judith Chartrand (the only Indigenous artist represented) reinforced the sense of unease. Chartrand, who is self-taught, does not shy away from controversy, emblazoning a series of pretty ceramic bowls, for instance, with the phrase “GO BACK TO YOUR OWN COUNTRY.” Two works in particular felt all too familiar in the context of recent social, ecological, and political unrest: Cupboard of Contention (2001) and Counteract (2006).
Counteract plays off of White Lunch, a historical Vancouver restaurant chain founded in 1913 and advertised as an establishment where white workers served a whites-only clientele. Though the racist protocol was ostensibly phased out, its moniker remained until the last White Lunch closed in 1980. Photos depict a spartan, white-walled establishment, counters lined with baked goods set against a backdrop of magazine racks and shelves stocked with cigarettes, mints, and other sundries. Counteract brings the racist ideology to the foreground, replicating the restaurant counter in an all-white tableau (stools, salt, sugar, menus, ketchup bottle), while the wall behind displays a colorful tableau of racist souvenirs, including signs for white and colored restrooms, another sign stating “No Liquor Served To Indians After Sundown,” a “Jap Hunting License,” geisha dolls, Indian babies, and caricatured Black minstrels. In the companion work, Cupboard of Contention, rows of Campbell’s-inspired soup cans (with flavors such as Theft, Invaders, and Exotic Others) fill a cabinet imprinted with a twist on the Canadian national anthem: “Oh Canada Your Home is Native Land.”
Canadians like to think of themselves as a progressive and culturally mixed people, but the impulse to bury and deny the past is always there. Looking at Chartrand’s installations, it was difficult not to think about the contents of the adjoining rooms loaded with the art of the world’s peoples. MOA, though acknowledging the contentious history of its holdings (“we know our collection contains items that are important to originating communities…[and we] support the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to ‘maintain, control, protect, and develop their cultural heritage’”), is not very forthcoming about how these items came into its possession. It takes a lot of digging to learn the details behind the collection’s original contributor, Frank Burnett, who traveled by yacht throughout the Pacific on lengthy trips, collecting works as he went; in 1927, he donated everything to UBC, where it all sat in storage until the early 1940s. As noted by Jonathan Alex Clapperton, a scholar who specializes in Indigenous history and culture, Burnett admitted to stealing many of the objects from their owners.
As the collection grew, MOA fostered relationships with First Nations artists, adopting what appeared to be relatively respectful collecting practices. Those efforts, however, were supported by regressive, punitive legislation, including the Indian Act, which remains largely in effect today, and one of its adaptations, the “Potlatch Law.” The Potlatch Law categorized a culturally and politically significant First Nations ceremony, and later, gatherings in general, as a criminal offense subject to imprisonment. The government regularly seized valuable potlatch items (masks, costumes, coppers) and jailed participants. Rescinded only in 1951, the law robbed more than a generation of First Nations families, many of whom sold “valuable and meaningful ceremonial objects to MOA because they had become unnecessary or illegal.” Attempts to involve First Nations’ communities have expanded over the years, but they were not consulted in Erickson’s acclaimed “European” design or about how they would like items stored (many remain sacred and are not intended for public viewing). Today, one need look no further than Vancouver’s traumatized Downtown Eastside to see that the long-lasting effects of this disparaging history are still at play.
While Chartrand’s work was the most explicitly political, her vision colored the remaining works, or at least subverted the museum’s ideological authority, making its “show and tell” agenda much less straightforward. Glenn Lewis’s hand-thrown salt and pepper shakers—pulled from the 1970 Osaka World Fair because they were thought to look too much like penises—were proudly displayed here, creating a dialogue with the once-prohibited naked centurions in the Great Hall. Gathie Falk’s Bootcase with 9 Black Boots (1973), molded from the boots of a friend and presented in an exhibit case, felt less like art and more like anthropology when seen alongside ethnographic “costumes” in the adjoining rooms. Even Ying-Yueh Chuang’s tactile, embellished wall hangings and Ian Johnston’s wallpaper-like Antechamber, consisting of mass castings made from everyday objects, resonated with the aura of historical fabrics and tapestries held in MOA’s collection. Alwyn O’Brien and Brendan Lee Satish Tang advanced these associations further. O’Brien’s elaborately filigreed, vase-like creations draw on her extensive knowledge of the decorative arts and a love of the Baroque, while Tang’s teasing, hybrid ceramics are a cross between functional Chinese porcelain and electronic tools, with jacks, wires, and cables protruding in inoperative detail. Both artists speak of dissecting and distorting preconceived notions of the traditional, exploiting its subsequent malleability to create playful and sometimes precarious forms.
Additional works toyed with a nostalgia for an idealized past (Jeremy Hatch’s ghostlike Tree House), straddled the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation (David Lambert’s reproductions of First Nation designs), and reinforced the partiality granted to Western decorative arts (Debra Sloan turning to the university’s European ceramics collection for muse). In the end, “Playing with Fire” highlighted how acculturation is systemic in our institutions; all of these coalescing mirages and myths are necessary to maintain the functioning of the system. Censorship, deference to the dominant culture, and the distinction between “art” and “anthropology”’ all come under fire, and as our fire-ravaged world demonstrates, once a blaze ignites it becomes more and more difficult to extinguish.
In a world where “I really don’t care” has become a meme, the social unrest accompanying the Covid crisis has exposed the deep cracks in the foundations of our systems. This reckoning has been a long time coming. Following the 19th-century colonization of Western Canada, it is estimated that epidemics and exclusionary policies reduced British Columbia’s Indigenous population by 80 percent. Current headlines are never short of examples detailing parallel human rights offenses—the Navajo Nation has the highest per capita infection rate in the U.S. and a death rate higher than New York, Florida, and Texas; BC’s remote Haida Gwaii nation faces hostile confrontations from neighboring tourist lodges over its decision to close its borders. And then there are the growing annual figures recording the disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black Canadians killed by police. As if this is not enough, there is the marked increase of hate crimes against peoples of Asian descent in both Canada and the U.S., fueled by racist commentary trumpeted by some of our highest leaders.
This is not to say that MOA should close. Perhaps there is still potential inspiration and consciousness-raising to be found in the museum, and not just murderous and subjugating hunger. Still, in keeping with the principles of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed to address the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools as “a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing,” it is time to be truthful about how these inheritances came into being. Why not put that story on the “About” page of the museum’s website? Why not collapse “art” and “ethnography” or flip the disproportionate numbers to mount a show with more Black and Indigenous artists and just create the new normal? Like so many things coming to the forefront today, if there is no effort toward change, history will just keep repeating itself.