CALGARY — A First Nation near Calgary is calling on the city to remove a controversial piece of public art that has previously drawn criticism from those who don’t like the $500,000 price tag as well as those who just don’t like its looks.
On Tuesday, Kevin Littlelight of the Tsuu T’ina First Nation lambasted the sculpture by New York artist Del Geist, which is called “Bowfort Towers” and is located near Canada Olympic Park.
Littlelight called the sculpture — consisting of steel beams and Alberta rundle stones — offensive, saying it appears to emulate Indigenous burial scaffolding.
Littlefield said the First Nation believes that attempting to reflect Indigenous symbolism without collaborating with local artists and elders “is not reflective of other recent steps by Calgary City Hall to respect Treaty 7 Nations.”
Geist, who grew up in North Dakota, has previously said he did speak with Blackfoot elders and has said the use of four towers in the piece is a nod to the traditional significance of the number, but has denied accusations of cultural appropriation.
The use of rock and steel has long been a staple for the artist, whose work has been displayed around the world for more than 40 years.
“As an artist, using the natural sciences as a palette, he has developed major site-specific artworks throughout the U.S. and Europe,” reads the biography on his website.
“His environmental artworks elicit unique qualities inherent to a place, fostering a viewer’s direct sensory experience. The stone and earth, metaphorically, contain the natural history of a region and its geology, capturing the spirit and flavour of an area.”
City councillor Sean Chu, a vocal opponent of public funding for the arts, called the sculpture “the worst kind of wasteful spending of tax dollars” while many on social media have criticized the look of the piece. One person suggested it belonged in a recycling bin.
Indigenous artist Adrian Stinson argued it’s up to municipalities to do a better job of vetting art projects.
“The artist needs to show the group what they’re working on so that people can actually give input to say, ‘oh you know, there’s a red flag — that’s too close to a brutal platform, you might want to rethink that because you’re going to offend people,’ “ he said.
Littlelight said this could be an opportunity for the city to learn from its failures, adding the First Nation would like to see elders and cultural experts help in the next step moving forward.
“There’s great artists that are Albertans, Aboriginal artists that are Albertans, southern Albertans, cowboys, Indians, that should be our focus and we should be pushing that,” he said. “Nobody comes to Calgary to look at New York art.”
He said he has some empathy for Geist.
“I can’t really speak for him but it is a strike out,” he said. “What do you do? You have to rebuild and if I was the artist I would reach out to the art community of Treaty 7 and redo things. Diego Rivera was a great artist, he had to redo art all the time, it’s no different here.”