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Regina artist David Garneau, beside his work "Evidence" which is based on an autopsy photograph of Neil Stonechild. ((CBC))

A Regina artist says he was compelled to create a portrait based on a disturbing autopsy photograph of Neil Stonechild, the young Saskatoon man who froze to death in 1990.

"It's ugly. It's sad. It's depressing," David Garneau said of the autopsy photo. "It was just this stark image. But I felt like I really needed to record that."

The autopsy photograph, a close-up of Stonechild's face, came from a website that was posting evidence gathered as a part of a judicial inquiry into the 17-year-old's death.

Stonechild was last seen in the custody of Saskatoon police. While no officers were directly linked to his death, the case gripped the province for years as the relationship between First Nations and police was closely scrutinized.

Garneau's large canvas replicates Stonechild's image with small red dots, which the artist likens to beadwork. Garneau is Metis.

The painting, titled "Evidence," is on display as part of an exhibition at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina. The show, "Diabolique," examines human conflict and our reaction to it and runs until Oct. 18.

 

'I'm constantly in knots looking at this painting.' — David Garneau, Regina artist

Garneau told CBC News he struggled over whether to display the painting, concerned that the depiction of a First Nation person in death would violate cultural norms.

He said he choose to share the work, in part to ensure Stonechild's story is not forgotten.

"I think a great injustice was done," Garneau said. "At the same time, I think that the events of the [judicial] inquiry have transformed the policing system, so that's a good thing.

"I'm worried about ideas like this or events like this being swept under the carpet and forgotten. I don't want to revictimize him and the family. I have a lot of personal anxiety about this."

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Artist David Garneau says he finds his painting of Neil Stonechild upsetting and jarring. ((CBC))

But the autopsy image also appears in the report by the judicial inquiry, Garneau said.

"So he leads now a second public life or a social life that's beyond Neil Stonechild the man."

Garneau said the reaction to the painting has surprised him. Some people have told him they see a person at peace.

"I don't know if it's for me to determine whether he's at peace or not," he said.

"I'm constantly in knots looking at this painting. It's jarring and upsetting for me. I don't see him at peace. But I'm glad that others do."

Garneau isn't sure what he'll do with the painting after the exhibit closes but hopes people who view it will see more than a post-mortem portrait.

"I still see it as a history painting because it's something that happened in the past but some elements still haven't been fully digested," he said. "I feel like they still need to be thought about it today."