‘Stark and soaring’ — Prominent new sculpture will forever honour Truth and Reconciliation at Brandon University

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Rising 30 feet into the air, a new public art sculpture at Brandon University will become a place of gathering, ceremony, and personal quiet contemplation, urging the community to honour Truth and Reconciliation.

Created by renowned Cree/Métis sculptor Kevin McKenzie, a faculty member in BU’s IshKaabatens Waasa Gaa Inaabateg Department of Visual Art, the sculpture is a work in plate steel, set vertically and intersecting, with a jagged cut taken out of one piece that has then been laced back together.

“While Truth and Reconciliation means different things to different people, for the most part, Truth and Reconciliation is an abstract notion. That means the art must be abstract as well,” McKenzie said. “Abstraction can be emotional. This sculpture mirrors that emotional content, while simultaneously opening conversations that link the past with the present and the traditional with the contemporary.”

The idea for a sculpture was born last summer, following the discovery of mass gravesites at former residential school locations across Canada, including in Brandon. With a shocked country in mourning, BU President David Docherty paused university business and declared a Day of Mourning and Reflection. In an email to campus, he asked everyone to consider how the university could best move forward in its commitment to Reconciliation, while also honouring the tremendous scale of the loss.

“I was deeply touched by the heartfelt and thoughtful responses that I received,” Docherty said. “Everyone agreed that the symbolism of lowering our flags was meaningful in that moment but was a gesture that could only go so far. We needed something more permanent.”

One idea in particular stood out.

“When I read the email from Rosanne Gasse, I knew right away she had the solution,” Docherty recalls. “She said we needed to commission a piece of art that would be able to speak to the magnitude of the challenge, which spans generations.”

Dr. Gasse is a professor in English at BU, who specializes in medieval literature and Latin, and who has been a long-time editor at the Canadian Journal of Native Studies. Uniting her research and her teaching is an overarching interest in issues of language, heritage, survival and oppression.

“Storytelling, whether it’s through art, theatre, music or writing, is how we can heal,” she said.

“I’m so proud of the insight and artistry from right here at BU that has led us to commission this sculpture. This is a true community artwork, rooted in our own experiences, while also reflecting their universal nature across the country,” Docherty said, “It is stark and soaring, creating an immediate emotional punch through its size and prominence while leaving a lasting impression through its considered detail and your own personal interpretation.”

During consultations to create the sculpture proposal, which included meetings at the BU Indigenous Peoples’ Centre and with local elders, McKenzie shared a scale-model maquette of the proposed piece, a little over a foot high.

The sculpture consists of two linear planes with vertical and horizontal dividing lines, representing the linear and symmetrical nature of truth. The two surfaces are interlinked, creating balance and unity. The need for reconciliation is represented in the artwork by an asymmetrical subtraction or cut out. This cut out runs down the centre of one surface in a wavy or jagged zig-zagged line and is flanked by a series of drilled holes, offering a system of laced fibre that weaves together to unite the two sides.

“The abstract nature of the artwork is intended to confront the viewer and evoke vigorous conversations,” he said. “Even at a small scale, people responded in different ways with different interpretations, and the full-size piece will be a place where meaning for the viewer is achieved through dialogue with oneself and with others.”

When fabricated, the sculpture will be installed in the spring or early summer on campus near the intersection of Louise Avenue and 20th Street. The location was the unanimous choice after a campus walkabout with university officials, an elder, and McKenzie. It is a highly visible and prominent location suitable for the significance of the installation, well-trafficked by the public as well as members of the BU campus community, able to accommodate both small and moderate size gatherings, and adjacent to quiet areas where the university plans to install supports for quiet contemplation and personal grieving.

“Intergenerational trauma has become part of the post-colonial Indigenous experience,” McKenzie said, sharing that his own father was a survivor of the Lebret (Qu’Appelle) Indian Residential School. With such a widespread and lasting impact, he says that community consultation needs to be ongoing — including in the naming of the piece.

“The Truth and Reconciliation themed sculpture remains Untitled for the moment,” he said. “We will consult with community members on the sculpture’s potential for cultural empowerment, education and above all healing. Then an appropriate title can be created for this contemporary Indigenous monument.”


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