How the University of Manitoba is decolonizing its art collection

How the University of Manitoba is decolonizing its art collection

The University of Manitoba is decolonizing its art collection, replacing problematic paintings and sculptures with contemporary Indigenous art.

“The university is ultimately a colonial institution that is designed to serve white people … and that needs to change,” said C.W. Brooks-Ip, registrar and preparator of the University of Manitoba Art Collection.

“We have had artwork that is by a white settler that depicts Indigenous folks in not really an accurate way, in sort of the mythologized way, that in some ways glorifies the white settlers — or at least reinforces their white supremacy.”

So Brooks-Ip created the Indigenous Student Led Indigenous Art Purchase Program, a two-year pilot project that aims to change that. The group of Indigenous students meets with artists and curators, visits studios and recommends artwork to purchase.

The move comes amid a larger debate about what to do with art that reflects a colonial and imperialist history. 

Student members of the University of Manitoba's Indigenous Student Led Indigenous Art Purchase Program (ISLIAPP)
Student members of the University of Manitoba’s Indigenous Student Led Indigenous Art Purchase Program. (Submitted by C.W. Brooks-Ip)

A reminder of home and community

The committee has received $30,000 from the school’s Office of the Vice-President (Indigenous). It’s submitted 24 proposals for paintings, prints, physical pieces and an etching, by artists including Jackie Traverse, Christi Belcourt and Kent Monkman. The group hopes to acquire them over the summer, and show them as part of an exhibition at the School of Art Gallery in October before installing them throughout the campus. 

Third-year student Jory Thomas, 20, says she jumped at the opportunity to get involved as the project’s committee co-ordinator.  

She remembers how overwhelmed she felt starting her architecture degree at the university. At the time, she said, there wasn’t a lot of Indigenous art on campus.

“Seeing pieces like that reminds me of home. It reminds me of community and it creates that sense of familiarity that gets you comfortable with being here … and ready to learn,” said Thomas, who is Red River Métis.

“The university is sending a message to students [that] you are welcome here.”

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Removed paintings

One painting removed from the university president’s office is a work by Lionel Stephenson, an artist living in Winnipeg between 1885 and 1892.

The painting shows Upper Fort Garry on one side of the river, with an Indigenous person sitting outside a teepee on the other shore.

One example of art being removed is this painting by Lionel Stephenson, which used to hang in the university president’s office.
One example of art being removed is this painting by Lionel Stephenson, which used to hang in the university president’s office. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“It’s kind of depicting a ‘We’re over here and they’re over there’ type situation,” Thomas said. “It’s not showing community and togetherness. It’s showing the separation between the river and the settlement.”

It shows “the threat of direct colonization,” Brooks-Ip said.

Another is a sculpture of a buffalo hunt by Thomas Holland, an American artist and polo player. It portrays an Indigenous hunter riding a horse and spearing a buffalo. 

This sculpture of the Buffalo Hunt by American artist, Thomas Holland, is one of the pieces that has been removed from public areas of the University of Manitoba, and relegated to the university collection art vault.
This sculpture of a buffalo hunt by American artist Thomas Holland is one of the pieces that has been removed from public areas of the University of Manitoba, and relegated to the university collection art vault. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

While the depiction may be historically accurate, it wasn’t created from an Indigenous perspective of cultural understanding, respect and gratitude for the animal’s sacrifice, said Thomas, whose clan animal is the buffalo.

Images like this perpetuate harmful stereotypes of angry, violent Indigenous people, fostering a hostile environment on campus, she said.

“Instead of this violent attacking of the bison, there might be a better option of a sculpture, where they’re preparing the bison that they’ve hunted, because we historically used all the parts of the bison,” she said.

A new piece

One of the new pieces is by Frederick Lyle Spence, also known as Thunder Bear, an Ojibway carver from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. It’s a soapstone carving of a black silhouette of a goose, with a dream catcher in its body, called “Let your dreams fly, for they will bring you home.” 

Spence carved it in March, and he said it’s been waiting for the right home ever since.

One of the contemporary Indigenous pieces being acquired is this soapstone sculpture by Frederick Lyle Spence aka Thunderbear, an Ojibwe carver from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. The black silhouette of a goose with a dreamcatcher in its body is called, ‘Let your dreams fly, for they will bring you home.’
One of the contemporary Indigenous pieces being acquired is this soapstone sculpture by Frederick Lyle Spence, an Ojibway carver from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. The black silhouette of a goose with a dream catcher in its body is called ‘Let your dreams fly, for they will bring you home.’ (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“If I’m not ready to let it go it, one of the things I’ve been told is that it’s meant to stay and absorb your love and your positive energy,” Spence said.

“And when it’s ready, it’ll go to its new home and then it’ll sit and give off that energy to whoever is around it.” 

He said he felt humbled and honoured when the university asked to buy it, especially when he reflected on his own experience as a student at the University of Winnipeg,  which he said made him feel ashamed of his identity and his “Peguis” accent. 

“I didn’t feel welcomed. I didn’t end up having a huge community or connection with the university, which is sad.”

What to do with colonial art?

For years, art institutions have deliberated on what to do with works that reflect a colonial history — should they be relegated to vaults or reframed with an Indigenous perspective and context as an educational opportunity? 

There’s room for both approaches, said Riva Symko, head of collections and exhibitions at Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq, home to the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art.

“We do need to put things away to make space for other voices to be heard and seen. Sometimes we need to put things away because they’re traumatic, because they are harmful … especially to our Indigenous visitors and audiences,” she said. “And we don’t want to instill more trauma on our communities.”

However, she said, artworks can occasionally be reframed or retold from a different point of view, giving a new understanding of them.

Riva Symko, head of collections and exhibitions at Winnipeg Art Gallery - Qaumajuq, art says art can spur conversation and dialogue.
Riva Symko, head of collections and exhibitions at Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq, says she understands the desire to destroy or hide depictions of colonial history because of the hurt and trauma it has caused — but while that may be appropriate in some cases, she believes using it to discuss and educate is also appropriate. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

In 2023, the Manitoba government said it would conduct a review to ensure all Indigenous-themed artwork displayed in ministers’ offices is created by Indigenous artists.

A provincial spokesperson said that review is now complete, and that all but one piece was confirmed to have been made by Indigenous artists. The remaining piece’s artist is unknown, and has been taken down until it can be identified.

Society is going through a paradigm shift, changing how we view our history and looking for new ways of dealing with our colonial past, Symko said. Art can spur conversation and dialogue, she said.

“The future will tell whether we burn them down, or whether we store them away and lock them in the vault, or whether we bring them out and use them for discussion.”

While Indigenous art is the focus right now, U Manitoba is currently auditing its entire collection and “keeping an eye out for things that might be problematic.”

If this pilot project can be extended or expanded, Brooks-Ip would also be interested in looking for art reflecting other racialized and queer communities.

The University of Manitoba is putting up Indigenous art in public spaces, including these  paintings in the Welcome Centre by Jackie Traverse.
The University of Manitoba is putting up Indigenous art in public spaces, including these paintings in the Welcome Centre by Jackie Traverse, an Ojibway from the Lake St. Martin First Nation. ISLIAPP is hoping to acquire more. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
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