Telling Stories: Narratives of Nationhood

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Responding: New Stories, New Myths

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Charles Comfort
Captain Vancouver
                        
image of artwork
David Neel: Captain Vancouver Portrait Mask, 1997.
Alder, paint, British flag, Canadian pennies. 122 x 46 x 19 cm. Collection of CCAG.
image of artwork
Charles Comfort: Captain Vancouver, 1939.
Oil on canvas. 127 x 152 cm. Collection of CCAG.

In the Confederation Centre Art Gallery's historical collection is Charles Comfort's 1939 mural Captain Vancouver. Captain Vancouver was the British navigator after whom the city and island of Vancouver were named. Charles Comfort was a Toronto-based painter, printmaker, illustrator, and muralist. He was born in Scotland and emigrated to Winnipeg in 1912 where he studied art. The mural shows the encounter of Captain Vancouver with native culture. In it, First Nations culture and tradition are portrayed from the perspective of a non-Native person. Many First Nations people have found the image troubling because the indigenous people seem to be portrayed as submissive to or subservient to the triumphant Captain Vancouver and the British men who accompany him and who dominate the painting's space. The native people almost seem to be included in the painting as decorative elements; there is no doubt as to who is in control of the scene.

In 1997, in response to Charles Comfort's troubling image, contemporary Kwakiutl artist David Neel created the Captain Vancouver Portrait Mask, a carved mixed media mask of the Captain. Neel made this work in response to the mural and to the way First Nations culture is portrayed. Neel's ancestors were Kwakiutl carvers, and he continues to develop the traditional carving forms that have been handed down through time. When Neel makes masks such as the one in this art work, he is creating living traditions, which he sees as critical to establishing a place for First Nations people in the contemporary world.