— Feature —

Hidden art treasure

Curator discovers new meaning in iconic Royal Alberta Museum painting

The Royal Alberta Museum

Carefully unfurling the edges of Blood Tears, the iconic canvas she was reframing, conservator Cyndie Lack was delighted by what she found. Hidden beneath the original wood strainer was a line of text–the missing conclusion of a lengthy inscription.

It reads: “God bless the survivor who spoke to live.”

Painted by revered Indian Group of Seven artist Alex Janvier (age 86), Blood Tears is a visual diary of the artist’s ten years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School, near St. Paul. The reverse of the canvas features a handwritten list of the losses experienced by residential school students–loss of language, loss of culture, loss of family–which, until Lack’s discovery, ended on a bleak note.

Blood Tears
Painted by revered Indian Group of Seven artist Alex Janvier (age 86), Blood Tears is a visual diary of the artist’s ten years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School, near St. Paul.

Now it speaks of outspoken survival. An expert with 30 years experience, Lack was hired to stretch the double-sided canvas that serves as the centerpiece of the Royal Alberta Museum’s new residential school exhibit.

While the conservator expected to uncover several hidden design elements (the original frame was too small for the artwork), she certainly hadn’t expected to add a new layer of meaning to this already significant canvas.

A statement of loss–and of resiliency–Blood Tears was featured on the cover of early Truth and Reconciliation reports. It became emblematic of the trauma caused by residential schools. The missing line underscores the importance of sharing this story, and its discovery came at a time when the RAM was changing the way it approached Indigenous content.

“There’s a sincere effort by this museum to make sure that they tell the right story; tell the truth,” says Tanya Harnett, professor of art and native studies at the University of Alberta and a member of the Carry-The-Kettle First Nation. Harnett serves on the museum’s Indigenous content advisory panel and was guest curator for the residential school exhibit.

Formed in 2014, the 24-person panel helped develop storylines and exhibits, as well as choose objects for display within the new human history gallery.

This level of engagement with Indigenous peoples has been a long time coming.

In 1988, an exhibition of First Nations artwork at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, called Spirit Sings, sparked controversy across the globe. What made Spirit Sings particularly contentious was the sponsorship of Shell Canada Ltd.

The Lubicon Lake Nation said the sponsorship gave the false impression that Shell supported Indigenous rights, when it had in fact been drilling on disputed lands for years.

Initially intended to support the Lubicon land claim, the boycott expanded into a critique of the power relations and representational practices of Western museums and resulted in the creation of a task force on museums and First Peoples.

“There’s a sincere effort by this museum to make sure that they tell the right story; tell the truth,”

Tanya Harnett, professor of art and native studies at the University of Alberta and a member of the Carry-The-Kettle First Nation

Jointly sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association, this national body put forward guidelines for establishing lasting partnerships between these two parties.

One of the recommendations in the task force’s 1992 report was to ensure Indigenous peoples were involved in the planning, research and implementation of exhibits and programs that include Indigenous cultures.

“The Spirit Sings was a flashpoint,” Harnett says. “Everyone around the world changed their philosophy: [museums] had to be including first peoples globally.”

The task force report went further than consultation. It dealt with issues of repatriation, addressed the need for diverse hiring practices and challenged the representation of Indigenous cultures as dying populations on the verge of extinction due to their inability to adapt. It’s taken more than 25 years, but when visitors walk through the doors of the RAM’s human history gallery, they won’t see dioramas or mannequins that treat Indigenous people like exhibits. Instead, archeological sites and ancient ways of living from building pithouse shelters to hunting pronghorn–are brought to life through illustration, maquettes and animated videos.

Indigenous stories are woven throughout the gallery, not clumped together or relegated to a pre-history space. And contemporary stories and traditional knowledge alike are told through a first-person narrative.

“The museum tried very hard to have people speaking behind the objects,” says Peggi Ferguson-Pell, president for the board of the Friends of Royal Alberta Museum Society when the group purchased Blood Tears for the museum.

“The Spirit Sings was a flashpoint. Everyone around the world changed their philosophy: [museums] had to be including first peoples globally,”

Tanya Harnett

From the sinister outline of a priest to the disembodied leg, splayed across the centre of the canvas, the painting relays the experience of residential schools in a way that no other object could. “It’s pain personified,” she says.

Earlier exhibits were criticized for presenting a culture in decline, instead of a vibrant, living one. “They seemed to be talking about us,” Harnett says. “Not to us. And not with us.”

The gallery may no longer treat Indigenous people as a “civilization from long ago,” but it’s far from perfect, says Miranda Jimmy. A member of Thunderchild First Nation, Jimmy is the co-founder of RISE, a group of citizens in the Edmonton region committed to reconciliation. “I feel like they took one step forward on a path where they could have taken a hundred steps easily,” she says.

Her biggest concern is the museum’s repatriation practices. While the museum’s website indicates it is working on building new relationships, current regulations only apply to Blackfoot items.

The Royal Alberta Museum declined to provide comment for this story.

In the absence of new repatriation agreements, Jimmy would like to see the question of acquisition addressed. While many objects in the museum were bought or donated, others were obtained in more questionable ways.

Jimmy would know better than most about these questionable methods. In 2016, she spent two months reviewing audio tapes and textual materials of John Hellson for the provincial archives.

At one time the Curator of Ethnology at the Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta, Hellson developed a reputation as both a respected anthropologist, and a thief. (In 1981, he pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property from the University of California’s Lowie Museum of Anthropology. “While working for the Government of Alberta, he was paid a finder’s fee for items that were acquired, sometimes by any means necessary,” Jimmy says.

Earlier exhibits were criticized for presenting a culture in decline, instead of a vibrant, living one.

“Let’s start telling the truth about museums,” Jimmy says. “Let’s talk about how [to find] these arrowheads, someone decided to rip up a bunch of land that was a ceremonial space and took everything they could.”

“[Let’s] say 50 or 100 years ago, that’s the way we did things, and we try to do things differently now.”

Harnett acknowledges there are gaps and flaws in the new museum. For example, she doesn’t believe the annihilation of the buffalo–an event responsible for ending the traditional way of life for many Prairie nations is adequately covered. “The loss of the buffalo was everything to culture,” Harnett says.

Still, she is proud of what the advisory panel has achieved.

On a Sunday afternoon in November–a little over a year after the museum opened downtown–a woman listens intently to a recording of Janvier in the residential school exhibit. Her daughter watches also, as the artist recalls being “thrown into the back of a truck” and taken to residential school.

“A lot of people went to their graves without telling their story,” he says, his gravelly voice suddenly cracking with emotion. “That’s why I painted Blood Tears. It’s the story of Canada.”

It’s hard to tell if the girl understands–if she grasps the pain in Janvier’s voice or the trauma depicted in his painting.

But at least it’s there–for her and for the other 400,000 people who visited the new museum in the past year.

“That’s what I love about the last line,” says Ferguson-Pell of the Friends of the RAM. “We are speaking about it; we’re not covering it up. We’re having those conversations, as painful and as difficult as they are.”