TREASURES OF THE TSIMSHIAN FROM THE DUNDAS COLLECTION at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), to October 7. $15, stu/srs $12. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNN
This spectacular collection of Northwest Coast indigenous masterpieces carries an emotional charge - partly because of the aura that lingers around objects used in communal ceremonies and shamanic healing, and partly because it raises questions about who should own such works of art.
In 1863, Anglican minister Robert Dundas was given these artifacts while visiting missionary William Duncan in the Christianized village of Metlakatla in northern British Columbia. It's undeniable that Duncan, who required converts to "give up their Indian devilry" and "cease calling in conjurers when sick," sought to destroy the culture that produced the works he had acquired.
Dundas's British descendant Simon Carey spent years negotiating with institutions including the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as well as the federal government, to return the collection to Canada intact, all to no avail. Last fall it was auctioned in New York for a record-breaking $7.1 million. Heritage Canada had spent most of its acquisitions budget to help repatriate another British collection of Plains indigenous art for the Royal Alberta Museum and would not contribute. At the last minute, a consortium that included members of the Thomson family purchased many of the major works. The fact that most buyers are Canadian seems a moot point if the pieces remain in private hands.
At the Tsimshian Treasures tour's opening at Prince Rupert's Museum of Northern BC, despite the impression given by quotes in the show, many were angered by the fate of their ancestors' creations. Several provinces now have repatriation laws that mandate return of ritual objects.
Given the uncertainties, we should see these magnificent works while we can. Bold, rhythmic carving, low-relief patterns and paint ornament a series of spoons, bowls, combs, pipes and ritual clubs. A Tlingit frog/man hat and a painted bird mask hint at the dramatic ceremonies wearers took part in. And the small hypnotic shamanic face mask demonstrates that the skilled sculptors had no problem with realism when it suited their purposes. This is sophisticated and spiritual art of the highest order.