Calgary

Defaced art generates conversation about decolonization

A political message on the Wolfe and Sparrow statue in Inglewood has got the community talking.

Artist behind Wolfe and Sparrows isn't mad but is a bit confused by vandal's message

The Wolfe and Sparrows sculpture in Inglewood was defaced with graffiti reading "decolonize Canada." (CBC)

Public art is meant to start conversations — and when Wolfe and Sparrows was installed back in May it didn't make too much of a stir.

Compared to other pieces in the city's public art program it was installed without attracting negative headlines or much critique.

But this month a vandal left their mark on the piece with a political message that's got the community talking.

I think whether this person's really understanding what the work is about or not, they are engaging in a personal conversation.- Brandon Vickerd

On the base of the traditional-looking bronze sculpture in red paint someone sprayed "Decolonize Canada." 

Wolfe and Sparrows was developed during a three-year process between artist Brandon Vickerd and the Calgary community of Inglewood. The piece took shape after community consultation and was finally installed by the new zoo bridge and unveiled in May.

Vickerd said he's used to having his art tagged, but this is different. 

"I much prefer this kind of message than somebody just mindlessly writing their name on it, or perhaps splashing paint on it or, you know, some other kind of vandalism," he said. "I think whether this person's really understanding what the work is about or not, they are engaging in a personal conversation."

But in the community, especially online, reception to the vandal's message was mixed. Some argued that no matter the message, graffiti is wrong while others defended the person who defaced the piece.

"In terms of graffiti some people have really intense opinions about public property rights, I personally have more opinions about human rights," Juliet Burgess said. "We're on Treaty 7 land and it's an important message for us to think about." 

Missing the mark

Rebecca O'Brien with the Inglewood Business Improvement Area said the vandal is missing the mark. 

"They're a little lazy and they need to do their homework and actually look at Inglewood," she said. "Maybe when they try to deface a statue like Wolfe and the Sparrows they should actually be informed about what the message is … this is very much a statement piece deconstructing colonialism." 

Indigenous activist Michelle Robinson feels the same way, adding that she giggled a bit when she saw the graffiti.

"Probably the person who did it is so used to seeing, you know, original statues of John A. McDonald or whoever … and thought they were being smart and witty," she said.

But, she's glad to see it sparking conversation about decolonization.

"This is really a monumental shift in our colonial conversation and our history."

Statue's intent was to undermine authority

Vickerd explained the intent behind his piece was to marry two requests the community made during consultations. There was an appetite for something historic, and traditionally monumental. While others wanted to see a piece that addressed the history of the land and the site's relationship with First Nations people. 

He found a sculpture in Mount Royal of general James Wolfe — a colonial figure known for his role in defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham. 

"With all the conversations happening around monument to Canada and the US right now, it seemed like a really topical opportunity," Vickerd said.

So, the statue was copied and re-mixed so that the general's head dissolved into a flock of swallows making their way back to England.

"It uses monumental motifs, but at the same time, is an attempt to undermine the authority of what we see monuments as," Vickerd said. "It's addressing the relationships between First Nations people and settler communities."

Vickerd says he isn't upset about the graffiti.

"They feel like their voice isn't being heard, because there's not being room at the table made for them. So I can understand where this motivation comes from."

He says what he hopes for next is a conversation, so he can understand the vandal's point of view.

It's not the first time the community has been hit with a similar graffiti sentiment this summer. In early July there were similar tags in alleyways with similar paint. Some with the same message, a red anarchy symbol, and another tag read "stop gentrification" on the side of a brewery building. 

A nearby statue near the Deane House and the Elbow River Traverse Bridge was also tagged with an identical message, with a spelling mistake.

The paint has since been removed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Helen Pike

Reporter

Helen Pike joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.

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