Back to News
December 9, 2023

Decolonize National Gallery of Canada?

Director not interested in thinking about it
By Zool Suleman
Fair Play - Wing Sang
Ali Kazimi, still from Fair Play, 2014. Three-dimensional stereoscopic video installation with sound, 7:00 minutes. Collection of the artist. © Ali Kazimi Photo: Courtesy of the artist. Fair Play was exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in 2019 as a part of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Share This

In a Press Release dated February 8, 2022, the National Gallery of Canada announced the creation of a new Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization “to deepen its relationship with Indigenous communities and Nations, locally, nationally, and internationally, and lead the work of decolonization and reconciliation through all the Gallery does”. (emphasis added)

In it’s Statement From The Board Chair, dated December 8, 2022, the Chair stated:

It is disappointing that several media outlets carried a disturbing tone of intolerance and a distinct lack of understanding about the need to advance initiatives around racism, diversity, and decolonization. These are not politically driven platitudes; these are programs that reflect the deepest values of the National Gallery of Canada and the sentiments of the Government of Canada. (emphasis added)

Jean-François Bélisle. Image credit: Claudia Morin-Arbour.
Jean-François Bélisle. Photo: Claudia Morin-Arbour.

The statement by the Board Chair in December 2022 was in support of the then Interim Director and CEO Angela Cassie who had been appointed in the wake of leadership turnover and disarray at the National Gallery. Cassie was replaced by Jean-François Bélisle who assumed the role of Director on July 17, 2023.

Journalist Paul Wells hosts a Substack newsletter and podcast website and on November 8, 2023, he held an interview with Bélisle. During the 49-minute conversation, Wells asked Bélisle about decolonization efforts at the National Gallery and Bélisle is quoted by Wells as stating:

“A gallery is a gallery,” he says. “It comes from a colonial past. We’re not going to change that. I think there’s a way to make our society better, make our galleries better, which is the part where I’m concerned — is making the gallery better. But what is decolonization? What would it entail? I’m not even sure I’m interested in thinking about it. I’m interested in building something, not de-building it.”

On November 10, 2023, Rungh News wrote to the National Gallery to seek an interview with Bélisle and provided a list of questions about Bélisle’s views on decolonization and those of the National Gallery. There was no reply by the set deadline.

On November 24, 2023, Rungh News wrote to the National Gallery once again, seeking a response. On the morning of Saturday, November 25, 2023, Rungh News received a reply from Douglas Chow, whose LinkedIn profile states that he is the Director of Communications at the National Gallery of Canada. In his reply email, Chow suggested he would reply to Rungh News by Monday, November 27, 2023. No reply was received by Rungh News.

Rungh News confirmed by an email sent to Chow on December 8, 2023, that no reply was received from him. On December 8, 2023, Douglas Chow contacted Rungh News by phone to apologize for not responding to the deadline set in the November 10, 2023 Rungh News email. He informed Rungh News that the National Gallery was preparing a statement to be released in the coming days.

Rungh News has reached out to various artists, curators, and cultural workers to comment on this story. Several chose to not engage with this request or feared negative consequences if they were quoted for this story.

Brian McBay, Executive Director of 221A, a cultural research space in Vancouver, and a current member of the Board of Directors of the Chinese Canadian Museum, also served on the Board of Directors of the National Gallery from July 2019 for a three-year term. When Bélisle’s comments were put to McBay, his first response was that it sounded “unsurprising, but far too honest.” He continued, “usually, people are more diplomatic. And so, I'm surprised that someone didn't get to him and provide that kind of media training before these comments went out, but I think it's quite harmful. And I imagine it's going to set into motion a whole bunch of, kind of, another rupture at that organization.” For McBay, the Director’s comments are part of a “deep white fragility that's starting to rear its head”. He went on to say, “it [the National Gallery] is mostly a white run organization and white governed organization. You do have almost exclusively black and brown bodies serving in the role of precarious work like security guards and janitorial staff. So, it's not different than a private golf course…welcome to politics full of contradictions.”

Asked about why the National Gallery, which was founded in 1880, was having problems with decolonizing, McBay noted:

“it's about money, and it's about people's positions in society… And people who own a lot of art work in Canada, that was pretty much popularized around colonization. So, the artwork itself depicts colonization, in some shape or form. They hold deep collections of this work and the value of that work would be under threat. And also, the value and positions, the social status. The people who own these collections [are] sort of morally being questioned, like deeply, at the root, being questioned and I think … the people who own these works, they're not ready to give that up. And I think it's similar to before what I've said, like, there's a lot of very well educated, very polite people in these positions. And they're far more diplomatic than what this person has just said, you know, and what I mean is, they know what not to say.”

Kwantlen artist and educator, Brandon Gabriel, found it troubling that while Bélisle acknowledged the National Gallery’s colonial past, the Director did not want to wield his power to decolonize the institution. Recounting the effects of the racist Indian Act on Indigenous populations, Gabriel noted that, “Canadian museums were integral in the advancement of this racist policy. The museum in which this Director works […] was integral in that national policy, and carrying out this national vision of destroying Indigenous culture outright.” Gabriel views the National Gallery as “a colonial enterprise that seeks to create unity, through its holdings, which are treasures that had been collected from across the land over different spans, different epochs of time, which speak to building this unified colonial vision of itself.” In his view, “the National Gallery of Canada isn't connecting to Indigenous communities.”

Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia and an award-winning curator of exhibitions, when reading Bélisle’s comments, said:

“I think the kindest word I would use is [the comments] are unfortunate. It's unfortunate that a person who's a decision maker, who oversees, in an executive position, such a powerful institution, who oversees budgets, who oversees human resources and hiring, oversees strategic goals and strategic visions, that they've said something so unwilling to actually listen. So, what I think is the problem with the comments is how emphatic he is, at not thinking. I come from academia so perhaps I'm a little biased, but I'm not sure it's a good idea to say […] I'm not interested in thinking about things, that's, to me, a kind of death. Death by stating that you are dead to communication, you're dead to listening, you're dead to other human beings, because you know everything already. I find that a very, very difficult position to even empathize with that. Again, in a university context, someone saying, I'm not interested in thinking is, basically, you have just erased any credibility you have for being a solution maker.”

Decolonizing might have many different meanings, Yu concedes, “but for me, it's not just a recognition that cultural institutions have come out of a colonial past, but also that their enduring power, as institutions, continues to reinforce the hierarchies, the exclusions, the exploitation, the extractions of value.” Yu’s focus on power, hierarchy and value extraction dovetails with McBay’s earlier comments about how the National Gallery is “an Ottawa-centric and Euro-centric institution” located at the nexus of money, power, and social position.

Award winning Cree and Metis film director and educator, Loretta Todd, did not comment on Bélisle’s specific words, but rather, chose to talk about the challenges inherent in working towards decolonization. In addition to Audre Lorde’s essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Todd also spoke about “settler moves to innocence” referencing Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s well-known scholarly article, “Decolonizing is not a metaphor”. Yang and Tuck make clear that decolonization is about the repatriation of Indigenous land and culture and not a metaphor for making things better. “Settler moves to innocence”, for Yang and Tuck, are various “strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege”. “It's like, well, I don't even have to think about this stuff,” states Todd, “because, you know, I'm just doing the best I can, you know, and that's all I can do, is do the best I can […] It's basically, restating that power, you know, nothing really changes. Because, you know, there was this settler innocence.”

In addition to whatever Press Release the National Gallery of Canada may issue in the following days to reconcile the Director’s comments regarding decolonization, which appear to be in direct contradiction to the “deepest values of the National Gallery of Canada”, Rungh News still awaits a response from the National Gallery of Canada.