David P. Silcox is the president of Sotheby’s Canada and a senior fellow at Massey College.
Related Letters and Responses
Re “A Rich Heritage Ignored,” July/August 2007: While I am flattered by David Silcox’s tribute to my research, analysis and documentation, and am not surprised that he disagrees with my arguments and conclusions, I must take issue with his misrepresentation of certain key areas and events.
The thesis is not that Native arts were excluded from Canada’s national image in the 1920s through “malice,” “conspiracy” and “subterfuge.” Precisely the opposite. After 1925, various efforts to include them occurred in national and international exhibitions and restoration projects. Rather I propose that the continued presence of Native peoples and cultures was incompatible with a national image based on their erasure in the Group of Seven’s empty landscapes, and with official representations of the disappearing Indian, based on a national policy of repression and assimilation.
Conflicts appeared when Native arts were displayed at the 1927 Jeu de Paume exhibition where they were praised by French critics who disparaged the group’s landscapes. Silcox states that I do not place these responses into context, yet I position them, and their authors, within the French definitions of modernism, nationalism, regionalism and the primitive.
Silcox eschews context when he discounts links between art and state in Canada, even claiming that the National Gallery of Canada is not a state institution. I do not attribute its actions nor those of other government agencies, to conspiracies—as Silcox claims—but rather to the practical expressions of government policy.
Silcox states that I impute motives to the principal figures in the narrative. The imputation lies not with the text, which allows actions and words to speak for themselves, but with the reviewer. Claiming that I see “malice” in the exclusions of Native arts trivializes the issues, although it places them within the type of simplistic personalized narrative that is all too common in writing on Canadian art. Similarly, dismissing Kihn’s Native portraits with a misleading claim that I value them as overlooked masterpieces redirects attention from their historical significance and links to government policy on Indian land claims.
Most egregiously, Silcox ignores the documentation of Gitxsan resistance to cultural repression during this period, trotting out old clichés about Native disappearance being so generalized a truth that everyone could be excused for believing it. As I indicate, it was then widely known that many Northwest Coast Native cultures and peoples were resisting displacement. Continuing to rehearse the discourse of disappearance when narratives of continuity and survival are becoming prevalent suggests that this willful “blindness” still survives among those who regard themselves as the official gatekeepers of Canadian identity.