Bowfort Towers 'never meant to be an Indigenous artwork,' city and Treaty 7 chiefs say in joint statement

Calgary’s mayor and the chiefs of the Treaty 7 First Nations released a joint statement Thursday aimed at quelling a controversy that erupted over Bowfort Towers, an art project recently added to the western edge of the city.

The half-million-dollar installation by New York artist Del Geist — part of the newly completed interchange at the Trans-Canada Highway and Bowfort Road N.W. — features big slabs of Rundle rock held aloft by four sets of rusty steel beams along the roadside.

When the work was unveiled earlier this summer, media releases from the city might have given the false impression that the art was meant to be Indigenous in some way, the joint statement says.

And that false impression led to hard feelings and debate, it adds.

“This was never meant to be an Indigenous artwork, nor inspired by Indigenous themes. This was not part of the request for proposals that was sent out by the City,” the statement says.

Speaking Thursday at the opening of the Bowfort interchange in northwest Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city’s public art policy might be temporarily put on hold and tweaked in light of the controversy caused by the Bowfort Towers sculptures. (CBC)

Artists from the three Blackfoot nations of Siksika, Piikani and Kanai sent a letter to the city decrying it as cultural theft for what they saw as its allusions to Indigenous burial traditions.

But according to the statement, Geist has been doing similar sculptures around the world for many years.

He was asked, late in the process, to consult with a Treaty 7 traditional knowledge keeper because of the significance of the area to Indigenous people, the statement notes.

Geist told CBC News his work benefited from those conversations and that he felt the work’s four towers aligned with First Nation’s cultural symbolism.

Art policy could be put on hold

Speaking at the official opening of the Bowfort interchange on Thursday, Nenshi said he has signed a notice of motion to be filed on Sept. 11 to ask council to temporarily suspend the city’s public art policy “to re-tool and tweak some of the processes on it to ensure that, both, we are being culturally sensitive but also so that we have the ability for some more public input.”

“I’m not interested in public votes on every piece of art … but I certainly think we can do a far better job of helping people gain ownership of what we do by bringing them in to the process, because, after all, in the end it belongs to the people.”

The city and chiefs agreed in their joint statement that there should be more input from Indigenous people, too, into future art projects and that the city should look for ways to involve more Indigenous artists, particularly local ones.

“I was very, very pleased that the Treaty 7 chiefs, all seven of them, were willing to work so constructively with the city to really acknowledge good intentions and figure out a way to do this better going forward,” Nenshi said.

The statement also acknowledges that the city has taken steps to improve its relationships with its Indigenous neighbours.

“The City of Calgary has demonstrated an interest in moving forward in reconciliation and common prosperity through actions such as permanently raising the Treaty 7 flag at City Hall to adopting an official Indigenous policy,” the statement says. 

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