A photo of sculptor Ken Lum’s The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader, in storage since 2016 and likely to stay there .
Sculptor Ken Lum’s The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader, in storage since 2016 and likely to stay there . Credit: Ken Lum

Throughout history public art has been controversial, and no form of art is more public than sculpture. Naturally, publicly displayed sculpture in Alberta was bound to get caught up in the ideological culture wars of the early 21st Century. 

So it was an interesting coincidence that Thursday, a day after lame-duck Premier Jason Kenney announced he would soon have a sculpture of Winston Churchill to shove up Calgary’s nose, the City of Edmonton decided to leave another in storage out of concern it could be interpreted “as a celebration of colonization.”

The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader – actually two bronze sculptures that were commissioned in 2012 by the city and the Edmonton Arts Council to be installed at the south end of the iconic Walterdale Bridge – has now been transformed into another set of creatures entirely.

That is to say, two large and heavy white elephants on which the city had spent $375,000 by the time they were completed.

“While some audiences may find the artwork thought provoking, for others it may cause harm and induce painful memories,” the city said in a news release. “For this reason, it is not considered inclusive to all Edmontonians.”

The artist, Vancouver-born Ken Lum, now a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s school of design, was not happy. He disputed the city officials’ concern, saying in an email to media that “perhaps the city is not ready for a real dialogue about its colonial past and the condition of coloniality that continues to mark the present. That was my intention with the work, not to celebrate colonialism as the city suggests.”

Earlier this month, he told the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) that his goal was to depict the troubled relationship between the settler state and Indigenous peoples. 

He told APTN he believes a non-Indigenous artist was chosen for the project because “the city was wanting an artist with engineering and infrastructure experience to be a part of the bridge design as well as the public art.”

The sculptures – one 10 feet tall – have been in storage since 2016, when they were completed by Lum. They will remain there until someone can figure out what to do with them. 

It is tempting to portray this as a tale of two cities, but it’s really about two levels of government: a city council that leans progressive, and which is bound to be accused of suffering from a surfeit of sensitivity, and a provincial government that unquestionably brings an excess of insensitivity to every issue. 

Given its inherently political nature, a surprising amount of public sculpture ends up in storage, outright exile, or subject to modifications to hide very public private parts, all of which happened to Regina’s statue of Louis Riel, which disappeared from public view the same year Lum completed his work on The Buffalo and the Buffalo Fur Trader.

Athabasca University board to meet today

After a week during which Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides is reported to have personally called every member of the board of Athabasca University, board members are scheduled to meet this afternoon. 

Presumably Nicolaides has a plan in mind to square the circle of his original admittedly impossible demand that 500 AU employees be required to move to the town of 2,800 souls 145 kilometres north of Edmonton and President Peter Scott’s determination to continue with a completely different plan to convert the distance-education institution to a virtual entity existing mostly in cyberspace. 

Whatever the board decides to do, fallout is likely. 

Public Interest Alberta sponsors a better essay contest

In response to the brouhaha over the Alberta Legislature’s embarrassing and ham-handed essay contest for young women, in which one of three winning entries turned out to be a screed replete with sexist and racist themes, Public Interest Alberta has announced an essay contest of its own. 

Unlike the Her Vision Inspires disaster by Associate Status of Women Minister Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk and her Parliamentary Secretary Jackie Lovely, which prompted thousands of face-palms but only garnered five entries, the Edmonton-based progressive group hopes to gather considerably more essays answering two questions: 

–       What does a just future for all look like in Alberta? 

–       How do we ensure a future with economic, social, and climate justice at the core?

The contest is open to young people from Alberta aged 14-to-30 regardless of gender and entries can be submitted in a variety of formats, including 500-word essays as in the provincial competition.

There will be three prizes, gift certificates of $250, $100 and $50 to Glass Bookshop, an independent Edmonton-based book store focused on Canadian writing with special attention paid to LGBTQ2SIA and IBPOC writers.

Submissions can be emailed or arrangements made for delivery here. The deadline for entry is September 16, at 11:59 p.m. 

UCP hopefuls Danielle Smith, Brian Jean, and Todd Loewen perform to expectations

Judging from the lively commentary on social media last night about the UCP leadership “debate” sponsored by an Alberta separatist group and a far-right video blog site, the three candidates who showed up performed pretty much as you would have expected given their audience and political predilections. 

You could watch the event online for $7, but that would be $7 too much for a couple of very bad causes, so I thought I’d save it for a yuppified coffee this morning and just go by what commentators made of sterner stuff than I am had to say about the performances by Danielle Smith, Brian Jean, and Todd Loewen. 

“Smith, Loewen, and Jean make it clear that the real purpose of replacing RCMP with a provincial force is not to combat rural crime, or exercise autonomy from Ottawa, it is to have the police report to provincial govt and not enforce federal gun laws,” tweeted Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt

“Not just report,” added University of Calgary Law professor Martin Z. Olszynski. “They made very clear that they have no problem meddling in specific enforcement matters, eg staying charges against their buddy pastors. Apparently, interfering w/ attorney generals & prosecutorial discretion is only a problem when it’s Trudeau doing it.”

“Danielle Smith just said she wants to Uber-ize Alberta’s health care system in case anyone outside AB is wondering how the UCP leadership race is going,” said environmentalist and researcher Emma Jackson

Noted independent journalist Jeremy Appel: “BJ agrees that there should be no sex Ed. But he says kids should be taught scientific, biological facts.” 

And, really people, I think that’s all we need to say about that right now. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...