Two Toronto Events: The Right Reverend Mark MacDonald’s Workshop and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia
I was fortunate enough to take in two wonderful events recently in Toronto: Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald’s pre-convocation workshop/talk “Truth and Reconciliation: Focusing on the Horizon,” held at Knox College, Toronto, May 13, and Emily Carr’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (which travelled from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England and opened at the AGO on April 11). Together, these two events seem to point to the promise of greater sophistication in the scholarship and discussions surrounding the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations and exchanges in this country.
The Right Reverend Mark MacDonald’s talk was timely. In about one month, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be released, and much of MacDonald’s talk was understandably devoted to issues pertaining to truth and reconciliation and the faith system he follows. What I found remarkable in this workshop, though, was a point he made about the mid-1800s in Canada and the manner in which the “gospel,” as he put it, was circulated. MacDonald spoke about the fact that the gospel had been transmitted–in the pre-residential school period—by Native peoples themselves via syllabics (especially in the North) and in hymns. In particular, MacDonald spoke of Anglican Indigenous missionary Robert McDonald (1829-1913) who, as Rev. Mark MacDonald said, was “arguably the most important missionary in North American history.”
I was reminded about Rev. MacDonald’s talk when I entered the new Carr exhibition at the AGO. Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Salish, Tsimshian and Tinglit art and ceremonial objects are displayed alongside Carr’s nearly 100 works and draw attention to the sophistication of Indigenous art and the sophistication of its influence on Carr’s vision. Moreover, there is a healthy questioning, too, of Carr herself in the notes that introduce the exhibition: “Carr was curious about First Nations people, sometimes to the point of invasiveness, and her assertion of kinship with them was often presumptuous.”
Twenty years ago, at least in the scholarship with which I am familiar (literary and cultural), this sophistication of ideas (evident in both MacDonald’s talk and the Carr exhibition) and the manner in which a discarding of absolutes leads to the possibility of new questions, didn’t really exist to my knowledge. Much has been effaced—and rightfully so—in large struggles for human rights and justice. However, much has been ignored and effaced, too, in terms of an understanding of the intricacy of cultural exchanges.
I posed a question to Reverend MacDonald at the end of his talk. MacDonald had spoken about the manner in which a traditional Indigenous, or Aboriginal elders’, view of education had not been respected or adopted in the Western education system. He spoke about a traditional Indigenous form of education that is conceived of as a circle and that values four components equally: sharing; love and community; learning; and application. MacDonald further noted that Western education, while valuing both learning and application, showed little regard for sharing and love and community. I had to agree with MacDonald wholeheartedly, but his earlier comments made me wonder if things had always been so diametrically opposed.
“What do you think the greatest Indigenous influence has been on the church and the education system?” I asked him during question period. What mark, or marks, in your estimation, have Indigenous epistemologies left on these “Western” systems? I was thinking about what he had said about Robert McDonald and thinking about the way in which syllabics—as part of a language system different from English and French—might carry the impress of different epistemologies. As the great critic and theorist Franz Fanon put it, “every dialect is a different way of thinking” (Black Skin, White Masks, 25).
“It will take decades before we can see or understand that,” MacDonald responded.
Looking at the notes that complemented Carr’s painting Wood Interior, I was reminded of MacDonald’s talk: “Carr had a lifelong interest in spirituality,” the notes read. “In the late 1920s, she experimented with theosophy (a philosophy that contains strains of Eastern and Western religions) before returning to her Christian roots.”
Taking in what is probably the best exhibition I’ve ever seen on Carr’s work, I wasn’t convinced by these notes. “Returned to her Christian roots?” I wondered and scratched my head looking at her interpretations of B.C.’s forest and her paintings Blunden Harbour, Guyasdoms D’Sonoqua, and Yan, amongst others. I thought about Homer, who warned that poets were notorious liars, and I thought about how I had applied his advice over the years: that is, presented with what a writer or artist says about her or his work or life and with the work itself, or residue of a life, I think it makes more sense to ignore the artist’s or author’s words and listen to the art.
Maybe, at the end of the day, the language of religious discourse can’t cut it in terms of fully understanding truth, I thought. Or maybe language itself can’t cut it. Maybe these things are ways to truth, but maybe they’re only one fourth of a vision. What impress, ipso facto, and even if only slightly, could syllabics have had on one’s understanding of a gospel, I wondered. How could I look at Blunden Harbour from four different directions in order to understand something comprehensive about Carr’s vision? How come the Indigenous masks and art were in glass cases and Carr’s paintings were on the wall? What had my education given me, and what had it taken away from me? What is it that we really see if we walk through Carr’s forest?
Silhouette No.2, the painting placed beside Carr’s Blunden Harbour in From the Forest to the Sea, is probably one of the most aptly titled of Carr’s works, I ended up thinking before I left the gallery. A silhouette of what, I wondered. Do we look at both the reflection and the object in four different ways? Whose perspective and what belief system looks out at us from this work? What exact roots was Carr turning to and tracing, especially in her most mature works?
Note: “The Right Rev. Mark MacDonald became the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in 2007, after serving as bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Diocese of Alaska for 10 years” (Anglican Church of Canada http://www.anglican.ca/im/bishop-biography/). Reverend Mark MacDonald received an honorary degree, Doctor of Divinity, on the evening of March 13 at the 171st Knox Convocation.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. NY: Grove P, 1967.
From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia. Art Gallery of Ontario, Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario. 11 April-9 August, 2015.
MacDonald, Right Reverend Mark. “Truth and Reconciliation: Focusing on the Horizon.” The Pre Convocation Workshop 2015. Knox College, Toronto. 13 May 2015. Address.