Art show shines a light on eugenics
Saturday, Oct 29, 2011 06:00 am
Oct. 23 to Nov. 23
University of Alberta Extension Gallery, Enterprise Square
10230 Jasper Ave.
No admission charge
Imagine the shock, the rage, and the volcanic rush to lash out hoping it would ease the pain. The searing wounds seem almost beyond our understanding.
To liberal 21st century minds, sterilization without consent is dehumanizing and a massive violation of human rights. But in a dark period of Alberta’s history, a four-person Alberta Eugenics Board, operating under the mandate of the Sexual Sterilization Act, wielded immense power.
From 1928 to 1972 when the act was repealed under the Lougheed government, the eugenics board approved nearly 4,800 sterilizations. Of that number, about 2,800 surgical procedures were performed.
The act was drafted to protect the gene pool and it promoted the sterilization of “feeble minded” or mentally disabled persons to prevent passing on undesirable traits to children. Virtually all the patients were in institutionalized government care.
For former patients such as Leilani Muir who successfully sued the Alberta government in 1995, the landmark case was another baby step towards ending discrimination.
More than a decade later many Albertans are still ignorant about this aspect of history. To cap off Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week that ran from Oct. 15 to 23, the University of Alberta Extension Department has opened a month long-art exhibit at Enterprise Square that runs until Nov 23.
The Collective Memory Project: Responses to Eugenics in Alberta features more than 20 contemporary works ranging from acrylics, digital prints and collages to pencil sketches, transfers and archival photos.
When the call to submit work was sounded, 12 visual artists from across the country responded. The only St. Albert artist to take action was Samantha Williams-Chapelsky.
On the topic of eugenics she said, “I read about it and I remember being shocked – that something like this would happen in Alberta.”
It appalled Williams-Chapelsky to learn that not only were “mental defectives” targeted for sterilization, but also epileptics, alcoholics, paupers, criminals, immigrants and Aboriginals. Eugenicists even argued that certain moral behaviours such as prostitution and homosexuality were inherited and should be culled from the population.
Learning about eugenics practices in the province was a double whammy. Not only is Williams-Chapelsky passionate about painting Alberta’s big-sky landscapes, but as a visual artist, freedom of expression is first and foremost in her mind. The forced sterilizations were acts that robbed individuals’ freedoms to choose and ran counter to her deepest beliefs.
Taking a stand was a no-brainer. She submitted Imperfect Strand, a collection of nine charcoal and pencil sketches that display the DNA helix twisted and folded in various poses. For Williams-Chapelsky, the DNA strands are easily recognizable as unified objects. Yet their microscopic beauty is different and interchangeable suggesting everyone has value and needs to be treated with respect and dignity.
“In art there’s a lot of room to talk about issues, and artists are meant to document history and talk about what’s important in this province.”
In addition to Williams-Chapelsky, participating artists include women incarcerated in federal prisons who feel similar emotions of rage, alienation and scarring while institutionalized.
Two of the most powerful paintings are acrylics by Nick Supina, a painter who highlights children with learning disabilities. Character Assassination depicts a beautiful young boy with a shadow gun pointed at his head, and Girl With a Book of Blank Pages shows a mentally disabled girl struggling to read even as the words make as much sense as a blank book.
“Eugenics was a very dark part of our history, but this contemporary legacy is one way to address it,” says curator Anne Pasek.
She adds that although sterilizations occurred in the past, it is still important to relate the events to the modern world.
“We’re still finding ways of excluding people who are different and restricting them from being unique. We need to provide accommodation for diversity. We need to look at public policy and collective ethics that are still affected by eugenic ideas such as immigration policies and designer babies.”
The Collective Memory Project is part of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, a project kick-started by Dr. Rob Wilson, an instructor of the philosophy of biology at the University of Alberta.
He has taught eugenics as part of a class. In 2001, several students spoke to him about relatives who had been institutionalized and sterilized.
“I was stunned. It was so close to home.”
Eugenics was practiced in three provinces, Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. Alberta was the most aggressive.
Wilson hypothesizes that eugenics took hold so strongly in Alberta in part because of the need for hardy individuals to populate the land.
“The idea may have been that we needed the best stock we can produce. If we don’t we will perish or be weakened.”
But as he examined the data, he realized the people in institutions were treated as “subhuman.”
“They were treated in a cavalier way. Sterilization is a serious matter. You better not make mistakes and mistakes were systematic.”
For Wilson, the eugenics movement became a crusade to get the information out to the public as a part of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada.
He applied for grants for the Living Archives project and in 2010 was awarded a $1 million grant spread over five years. It comes from the Community University Research Alliance in turn funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
While the art show is the most highly visible component, Living Archives has several goals to develop a multi-layer website, construct a complete electronic interface, push to implement the study of eugenics in the school curriculum, and host seminars and workshops.
Looking back at the art exhibit’s opening, Wilson describes the show as earthy and grassroots.
“It was very moving, very emotional and I hope people come up and read about eugenics and start to think of the citizens connected.”