Why the Art Gallery of Ontario removed 'Indian' from the name of this Emily Carr painting

The renaming of a painting by the late Canadian artist Emily Carr has sparked a debate about art history and cultural sensitivity.

'The painting itself stands with its history of colonialism,' says AGO curator Georgiana Uhlyarik

Emily Carr's 1929 painting Indian Church has been renamed the Church at Yuquot Village due to the negative connotations associated with the word 'Indian.' The name change has sparked a debate about history and cultural sensitivity in the arts. (B.C. Archive/B.C. Royal Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario )
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The Art Gallery of Ontario has scrubbed the word "Indian" from the title of a painting by the late Canadian artist Emily Carr, because "that is a word that causes pain," curator Georgiana Uhlyarik says.

The 1929 painting originally known as Indian Church was re-hung in the Toronto museum in early May under the new name Church at Yuquot Village, a nod to the B.C. Indigenous community where the church was located. 

"We feel that we are moving something forward, rather than staying in one place and repeating ... the hurt of that word," Uhlyarik, the co-leader of the AGO's department of Indigenous and Canadian art, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The AGO's move is part of a controversial global trend of removing racially charged language from older pieces of art.

The Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam launched the Adjustment of Colonial Terminology project in 2015 with the goal of reviewing 220,000 titles and descriptions.

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations

Uhlyarik said the AGO consulted the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, on whose territory the church was located, before making the change.

"It was the very first phone call that we made," she said.

The church in the painting was built on member nation Mowachaht Muchalaht's territory by Christian missionaries in 1889. Carr first saw it on a visit to the West Coast in 1928.

"Carr was quite fascinated with it," Uhlyarik said. "It's a really quite a critical painting in her career."

Carr, who died in 1945, named the painting herself.

The original church burned down, but a new one erected in its place still stands and now serves as a community centre.

Indian Church was rehung at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto at the beginning of May with the new name Church at Yuquot Village. (Art Gallery of Ontario )

Along with the new name, the AGO has erected an informational panel beside the painting that details the history of the church and the context behind the name change.

"We are acknowledging that this is its history, that this is why it was called that, because that is in keeping with the language of her time," Uhlyarik said.

"But that in terms of the title, we would like to open up this conversation by saying, 'well, where is this place? What is the history of this place?' We wanted to give the painting its place — sort of locate it, if you like, on the map."

Cultural sensitivity in the arts

The name change has ignited debate about history and cultural sensitivity in the arts.

"While in general I am in support of the principles of reconciliation, as an artist I can't support the change," Carey Newman, a Kwagiuth/Coast Salish artist, told the Times Colonist newspaper. 

"As an artist, I am always aware of my language. If I said harmful words, I would address and take ownership of them. Changing words merely obscures the truth of how people spoke."

Jan Ross, curator at Emily Carr House, told the newspaper that when an artist names their own work, that name should stand.

"You have to see it in context or you are liable to repeat mistakes," she said.

Georgiana Uhlyarik is a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and co-leader of the museum's department of Indigenous and Canadian art. (Art Gallery of Ontario )

But Uhlyarik said the gallery has no intention of whitewashing history.

"We are not at all interested in hiding the history of what the object was titled by the artist and how it was exhibited and how it continues to be reproduced in all of the Emily Carr publications and postcards and posters that are around," she said. 

"We made a very deliberate point in including all this information in the label beside it. The painting itself stands with its history of colonialism, with the history of missionaries on the northwest coast."

As for other works in the AGO collection with similar terminology?

"We're going to take it case by case and do it responsibly," Uhlyarik said. "Because I think it's time."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Georgiana Uhlyarik produced by Katie Geleff.