Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Riel the Statuesque Strange Attractor

Riel 1870. UofManitoba Libraries
What is it that attracts Canadians to Louis Riel? The impetuous wag might quip, Riel's rebellion was a brief but bloody outbreak in Canada's otherwise pallid past.  Jennifer Reid has opted for a more cerebral explanation in Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada : Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State (2008).  Reid suggests that for Canadians, Riel functions like the "strange attractors" used in chaos theory which make patterns discernible within complex systems.  The struggle for a Canadian national identity must work across the complex variations in region, language and ethnicity, and Riel may offer a way to understand these nuances.


As Reid writes, "Straddling the dichotomies of the Canadian social body, the man and the myths that have attached themselves to him (as well as to the resistance of 1869-70 and the Rebellion of 1885) might also present themselves to us a 'repeating' elements, signalling a different kind of order to be discerned within a history of disjunction.  From this vantage point, it is Riel as the emblem of 'in-between-ness' who expresses a most basic fact of the Canadian experience: that of cultural hybridity or...metissage." (Reid, 81)


Mackenzie Art Gallery
Riel has served as a bedrock of controversy in his numerous incarnations in Canadian culture, and no less so when his most intimate features are chiselled in stone.  The first of the Riel statue controversies occurred shortly after the 1968 unveiling of John Nugent's sculpture at the Saskatchewan legislature.  As Reid writes, "the virtually naked representation of Riel, right arm raised, genitals clearly visible, and neck angled upward as in prayer was presented to a public that was relatively unanimous in its displeasure for the piece." (Reid, 3)  It took until 1991 to have the statue removed and donated to Regina's Mackenzie Art Gallery.


Another statue, created by Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury, and displayed to the public in 1971 at the Manitoba legislature, was also "naked and tormented", and drew the ire of politicians and the Manitoba Metis Federation, whose former president dubbed it an "undignified...incongruous monstrosity." (Reid, 4) In 1994, the statue was removed from the grounds to the College universitaire de Saint-Boniface.


Finally, an acceptable statue created by Miguel Joyal was unveiled at the Manitoba legislature in 1996, which, after a full generation of controversy on the grounds was met with general approval of the public.  Unanimity is impossible to achieve, however, in historical interpretation as well as aesthetic taste.   Reid notes that one pundit claimed Joyal's work was, "just as boring and constipated as the other statues that dot the grounds." (Reid, 4)

Further Reading

Shannon Bower, "Practical Results": The Riel Statue Controversy at the Manitoba Legislature Building", Manitoba History
Sean Kheraj, "Representing and Remembering Louis Riel" Blogpost

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