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‘It looks like a burial tower:’ Controversy over Calgary’s new public art project

WATCH: As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, First Nations artists say the new art doesn’t represent them and that the city needs to do more to get indigenous input.

Bowfort Towers is the new piece of public art near the Trans-Canada Highway at Bowfort Road.

It’s supposed to represent a gateway to Calgary, but some members of the city’s indigenous community said it has the looks of an old cemetery.

“In my mind, I was thinking that it looked like a burial tower,” Calgary artist Yvonne Jobin said.

READ MORE: City of Calgary unveils Blackfoot-inspired art at major northwest interchange

The city says Del Geist, the New York artist who created the installation, was aware of the Blackfoot history of the site.

“This is the base of Paskapoo Slopes, which is a very important indigenous site,” city manager of arts and culture Sarah Iley said Thursday. “So when we went out looking for artists that would undertake this project, they were given that kind of direction.”

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But local indigenous artists don’t think the art reflects their culture at all.

“I don’t see anything that relates to the people of this land…the Blackfoot people or other people such as myself (the Cree) that live here,” said Jobin, who grew up in High Prairie. “I don’t see anything that relates to our culture.”

The art installation at the Trans Canada Highway/ Bowfort Road Interchange was unveiled on Aug. 3, 2017.
The art installation at the Trans Canada Highway/ Bowfort Road Interchange was unveiled on Aug. 3, 2017. Aurelio Perri/ Global News
The City of Calgary unveiled half of a public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange on Aug. 3, 2017.
The City of Calgary unveiled half of a public art installation at the Trans Canada Highway and Bowfort Road interchange on Aug. 3, 2017. Aurelio Perri/ News Talk 770
The city said the art at the Trans Canada Highway/ Bowfort Road Interchange is at the "gateway to the city."
The city said the art at the Trans Canada Highway/ Bowfort Road Interchange is at the "gateway to the city." Aurelio Perri/ Global News

The city claims the art is linked to Blackfoot tradition.

Iley said there are four towers that relate to the Blackfoot cultural symbolism that relate to the four elements, the four stages of life and the four seasons.

Geist said he consulted with Blackfoot people, but wasn’t trying to make a Blackfoot sculpture.

Michelle Robinson, who is running for councillor in Ward 10 and is currently the Indigenous Peoples Commission Alberta chair, said she’s not aware of any First Nation person on the board responsible for approving the art work.

“There’s a reason why indigenous people are not on community boards and are not included in the bigger picture and it’s that education component,” Robinson said. “We are in a time of reconciliation. We are in a time where we are talking about indigenous inclusion and we are still not seeing it at a simple art policy level.”

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City of Calgary unveils Bowfort Towers
City of Calgary unveils Bowfort Towers

The sculpture uses Rundle Rock stones, which are found only in Alberta.

One per cent of capital budget for every infrastructure project is dedicated to public art in Calgary.  The cost of the interchange project is $71 million and both the Bowfort Towers and second half of the project came in under budget at $500,000.  The fabricator on the project was Metal–Fab Industries, a local company.

The second half of the public art project will be completed in the fall.

Construction of the Trans-Canada/Bowfort interchange is expected to be finished by the end of August.