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'It's not Blackfoot:' Artist speaks out about Calgary art installation on Bowfort Road interchange

The City of Calgary described the art aligned with Blackfoot cultural symbolism: four seasons, four directions, four elements, four human stages

The first half of a new public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange.

Jennifer Friesen / for Metro

The first half of a new public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange.

The City of Calgary's public art program is under fire again, but this time it's not just project costs turning heads and sparking outrage.

The controversial art installation unveiled by the city on Thursday, and described on an official website as aligning with "Blackfoot cultural symbolism" has sparked concerns among some Indigenous artists about who was consulted and why.

Created by New York artists Del Geist and Patricia Leighton, the peice features a dozen upright beams supporting rocks, but some online have questioned the resemblance to traditional scaffolding burials.

"This is a prime example as to why non-Indigenous artists need to stop being "inspired" by Indigenous culture as outsiders," Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie tweeted Thursday.

In a follow-up tweet she said if the resemblance was accidental, "then then you're going to need to figure out how to reconcile that with the Blackfoot Nation."

He said the only Indigenous nod in the piece was the symbolism of the number four.

"There are four towers," Geist said. "We had been in communication with some Blackfoot elders and Blackfoot consultants all along and one of the things that they wrote was that the symbolism for the Blackfoot is the unit four and for particular reasons."

He said his sculpture deals with universality and connecting to the earth, but it's not a Blackfoot sculpture.

"We're referencing the deep ancient history of the region, it's not Blackfoot at all, but we wanted to be gracious enough to use their symbolism of four, the number four. But they are not Blackfoot forms," he said. "We even had a tobacco ceremony with one of the elders just above the site."

When asked, Geist would not disclose the names of the elders, but said it was a private ceremony, and he was "touched" to have been invited.

Michelle Robinson, who is running for Ward 10 on a platform that includes better Indigenous inclusion, said this shows the lack of education and outreach on the city's part.

"Our policies aren't Truth and Reconciliation Commission compliant," she said. "The education that was part of the calls to action are not implemented yet."

As for the percieved similarity to scaffolding burials, Geist said he wasn't aware people were making the comparison, but said he was familiar with the practice from his upbringing in North Dakota where he went to school with Sioux peoples.

"That hadn't occurred to me, but I'm OK with it. I don't want to make a direct reference for Blackfoot, for that, I wouldn't want to offend anyone if they think that, but I don't see why people would be offended by that. These are universal things all over the world."

He also said the installation isn't finished yet.

According to the city’s public art webpage, they are bound by international trade agreements to make calls for artists worth over $75,000 available internationally.

A group of seven panelists choose the artist, and approve the concept based on artistic quality and "comparative merits of submissions".

Uproar over cost continues:

Councillors also took to Twitter on Thursday and Friday, some calling for a new debate about the public art program, especially in light of the current economic downturn.

Couns. Sean Chu and Diane Colley-Urquhart called on the city to scrap the program that puts 1 per cent of the budget of every city infrastructure project (up to $50 million and 0.5 per cent if the project's budget is more than that) towards public art.

This installation was reported to have cost $500,000.

Geist pointed out that 90 per cent of that was spent locally, in Calgary.

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