Showing posts with label stolen gods. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stolen gods. Show all posts

December 14, 2020

Voluntary Restitution of Indian Annapurna, the Hindu Goddess of food and nourishment, by University of Regina in Canada.

Image Credit:  Dona Hall, courtesy of MacKenzie Art Gallery
Figure of Annapoorna (Benares, India, 18th century),
artist unknown, stone, 17.30 x 9.90 x 4.90 cm.

An 18th-century murti of the Hindu goddess Annapurna, which was stolen from India over a century ago, will be returning home soon from Canada. Upon the discovery that one of the idols in their collection had been stolen from a shrine in Varanasi, India, the Mackenzie Art Gallery at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan reached out to officials in India to discuss restitution. 

The statue has been in the university’s possession since 1936 when it was donated by Norman MacKenzie, the namesake of the university's gallery. The sculpture remained unquestioned until 2019 when artist Divya Mehra was invited to host a solo exhibition at the Gallery. 

While doing research for her exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Divya Mehra discovered the statue’s illicit origin. Her exhibition, entitled, From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away), "unravels the West’s obsession with simultaneously defining and consuming the histories and identities of other cultures. In this collection of reproduced, misclassified, staged, and stolen cultural property, Mehra deftly and playfully navigates complex networks of colonial entitlement, popular culture, art history, sacred objects, exotic adventurism, and novelty."

It was through her research in the university archives that she discovered the notes from Norman MacKenzie’s trip to India in 1913 which revealed that the idol had been stolen from a small sanctuary along the Ganges, procured indirectly at the behest of MacKenzie. At the time the sculpture was accessioned into the museum's art collection the idol was misclassified as a representation of the god Vishnu and continued to be labelled as such until Mehra began her research. 

When  Mehra recognized that the clearly female sculpture was not Vishnu, she consulted with Dr. Siddhartha V. Shah, curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum who revealed that the deity depicted was in fact Annapurna, also known as the Queen of Benares and Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. Upon the discovery of the illicit origins of the artefact the artist approached John Hampton, interim CEO and Executive Director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, regarding restitution.  The university then took the steps to reach out to the High Commission of India to discuss the sacred object's return. 

The proactive and voluntary repatriation of an artefact is quite unusual in the museum world, with repatriation often taking years of legal discussions and cultural diplomacy between the cultural institution and the aggrieved nation. Mr. Ajay Bisaria, High Commissioner of India commented that "the move to voluntarily repatriate such cultural treasures shows the maturity and depth of India-Canada relations".

The repatriation ceremony was held virtually on November 19th, with attendees from the High Commission of India, Global Affairs Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, the University of Regina, and the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Dr. Thomas Chase, Interim President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina stated during the ceremony that "as a university we have a responsibility to right historical wrongs and help overcome the damaging legacy of colonialism wherever possible...repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today. I am thankful to the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the Indian High Commission, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for their roles in making it possible."

Image Credit: University of Regina
Screenshot from Repatriation Ceremony

The university and gallery have affirmed that as a result of the discovery of the illicit provenance of the Annapurna idol they will be conducting a full review of the rest of their collection.  Alex King, the Curator for the University’s art collection commented that "the repatriation of the Annapurna is part of a global, long-overdue conversation in which museums seek to address harmful and continuing imperial legacies built into, sometimes, the very foundations of their collections. As stewards of cultural heritage, our responsibility to act respectfully and ethically is fundamental, as is the willingness to look critically at our own institutional histories."

This is undoubtably a step in the right direction for cultural restitution, but it is also a reflection of how little is known about museum collections.  Founder of the India Pride Project S. Vijay Kumar commented that "while the recent restitution is a welcome move it is pertinent to point out that a very distinct feminine sculpture holding a ladle and a bowl was displayed in an academic Institution since the mid-1930’s as a Vishnu. It shows how little of displaced Indian art in Canada has been properly studied. Further that the paperwork attested to its dodgy provenance was within the University archives shows the importance of reviewing provenance and due diligence not just for current acquisitions but for the past as well.  Museums in Canada have in general a very poor record in displaying collections let alone disclosing provenance publicly on their web sites and this is despite high profile cases linked to Subhash Kapoor and even prior that to the Pathur nataraja in 1980s.  We hope this good trend catches on and other public museums engage experts into researching provenance or as a start put the available provenance online."

Image Credit: Sarah Fuller
Courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects

As this Annapurna returns to India her space in the museum collection will be filled by a new piece by Mehra titled 'There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána)'. She spoke with ARCA about the new piece explaining that "the work is a small bag of sand — purchased at a Hollywood prop store (rich in Indiana Jones memorabilia) and artificially aged with coffee, and dye —weighing the equivalent (2.4 lbs.) of the stolen stone goddess of Annapurna that is no longer a part of the collection. The bag sits upon an altar constructed as if for a film set, in front of a ‘Jungle Vine’ painted backdrop. The work is based on a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark — where Indian Jones steals an idol off of a pedestal from an ancient temple. He leaves a bag of sand with what he guesses to be the weight of the stolen idol." The new piece is a reversal of the gap left in the cultural heritage by the antiquarians of the past, the bag of sand now being left at the museums as the statue returns to the place it was stolen. It can also be seen as a commentary on the idolization in the modern world for characters such as Indiana Jones, who treated the cultural heritage of other countries as prized objects to acquire, careless of the value it held to the people it was stolen from. 


By: Lynette Turnblom 

Bibliography 

Annapoorna Virtual Repatriation Ceremony. 2020. “Annapoorna Virtual Repatriation Ceremony.” YouTube. November 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/q769-baqiaA.

Hampton, John G. 2020. “Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away).” MacKenzie Art Gallery. 2020. https://mackenzie.art/experience/exhibition/divya-mehra-from-india-to-canada-and-back-to-india-there-is-nothing-i-can-possess-which-you-cannot-take-away/.

“Statue from the University of Regina’s Art Collection Officially Repatriated to India in Virtual Repatriation Ceremony | Communications and Marketing, University of Regina.” 2020. Uregina.Ca. November 19, 2020. https://www.uregina.ca/external/communications/feature-stories/current/2020/11-19.html. 

“Statue from the University of Regina’s Art Collection to Be Returned to India Following Virtual Repatriation Ceremony.” 2020. MacKenzie Art Gallery. November 24, 2020. https://mackenzie.art/statue-from-the-university-of-reginas-art-collection-to-be-returned-to-india-following-virtual-repatriation-ceremony/.