While going through the MacKenzie Art Gallery's (MAG) permanent collection in preparation for her own exhibition there, Divya Mehra discovered a statue that seemed to be mislabelled.
The small, stone statue had been one of the items bequeathed to the gallery by its namesake Norman MacKenzie. It showed a female figure but was identified as the Hindu god Vishnu. Knowing that Vishnu was a male deity, Winnipeg-based artist Mehra wanted to learn more.
The MAG has a leather-bound book of notes and stories written by MacKenzie about the antiquities he collected, so Mehra looked up the story tied to this particular statue.
John Hampton, interim CEO and executive director of the MAG, recalled the story and said MacKenzie saw the statue during a trip to India in 1913.
"He saw individuals worshipping three idols embedded into a shrine," said Hampton.
MacKenzie was fascinated by the idols and told his guide he wanted one. His guide refused, but a nearby stranger overheard the conversation and offered to steal one for him. MacKenzie agreed to the deal and succeeded in bringing the statue — which he believed to be of Vishnu — home with him.
With the help of a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum, Mehra correctly identified the statue in the fall of 2019 as depicting the deity Annapurna.
But the shady history of how MacKenzie came to have the statue started up a conversation, and Mehra asked that the MAG try to return the statue to where it belonged — in India.
"We have started that process," said Hampton, noting that the task is long and complicated.
"It's almost its own … adventure in trying to find the original shrine where this was taken from amongst thousands that exist along that stretch of river."
In the meantime, Mehra created a replacement piece for her exhibition, which drew inspiration from the popular film character Indiana Jones.
"She filled a bag with sand at the approximate weight of the sculpture and we've displayed it on a replica of the shrine from Raiders of the Lost Arc as a stand-in for the object that is not on display and which will be … hopefully returned to its rightful place."
The stand-in piece fits in well with Mehra's exhibition, which is titled From India to Canada and Back to India (There is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away). The exhibition critiques MacKenzie's own colonial mindset and challenges viewers to think about their own.© Sarah Fuller Divya Mehra's exhibition titled From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away), which is currently on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery until January 2021.
"It is about the West's obsession with both defining and consuming the histories and identities of other cultures," Hampton said of the exhibition.
"It looks at how we participate in tourism, in souvenir culture and in creating our own narratives of what other cultures look like."
Because of the story behind that one statue, Mehra continued to search the MAG's collection for other stolen works. So far, seven of the collection's approximately 5,000 pieces have been identified as stolen. All of those were antiquities collected before the gallery itself was founded by the University of Regina in 1953.
Hampton said the hope is to repatriate all of those works if possible, although he noted the countries of origin may not necessarily want the pieces back. He anticipates the process to repatriate the first statue identified to take several years.
"This is the first step made towards ensuring that we have an ethical collection," he said.
Mehra's exhibition is on display at the MAG until Jan. 2, 2021.