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ARTFUL BLOGGER: New God(s) exhibit at Canadian Museum of Civilization explores the good, the bad, and the religious

By Paul Gessell

There is much to marvel at God(s): A User’s Guide, the new nine-month-long exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

And there just might be a few things to make your cringe.

Conquistador and Lady on Horseback (Mexico, 20th centur, CMCy) recalls Mexico's Day of the Dead festival, when boundaries between the living and the dead are temporarily erased.

The exhibition walks you through all the major, and some of the minor, religions of the world in an attempt to show similarities among the various faiths. They all have marriage rituals, religious pilgrimages, sacred music, and spectacular architecture, for example.

The similarities are so striking that, if you are a religious person, you may suddenly feel an instant connection to people you once thought were very different from your but actually live very similar lives, spiritually speaking, albeit with different headgear and sexual mores.

The differences in religions, the centuries-old struggles and the armed conflicts between adherents of different faiths, were given short shrift in this show. The Crusades, Northern Island’s Catholic-Protestant battles, the partition of India, and other religious hot spots over the millennia do not seem welcome in this somewhat Pollyannish extravaganza. Anyway, those are perhaps best left to another exhibition or perhaps the front page of your newspaper.

But back to the exhibition’s marvels. The most striking feature of God(s), in my mind, was the news that this exhibition, supposedly imported from The Museum of Europe in Brussels, is actually simply inspired by an exhibition in that Belgian institution.

The truth is that most of the 225 artifacts in the show were not exhibited in Europe; they were replaced with ones mainly from the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization itself. Indeed, many of the Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and other artifacts were created by people of those faiths residing in Canada.

Thus, an exhibition originally intended to explore the world’s religions was transformed into an exhibition exploring Canada’s religions, complete with made-in-Canada Islamic calligraphy, a Jewish Torah Ark constructed in a folk-art style almost a century ago in Glace Bay, N.S., and serigraph print — in Tsimshian iconography — of Christ’s head by aboriginal West Coast artist Ron Vickers.

Timothy 2:111 (Tsimshian) by Ron Vickers. The familliar image of Jesus Christ depicted in the distinctive graphic style of Tsimshian, a West Coast First Nation.

This exhibition is probably the best example of how Canada has become a mainly peaceful multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state that, despite some problems, has never exploded in sectarian violence the way Ireland, the Middle East, or India have. Maybe that, too, sounds Pollyannish. But it’s the truth.

The tone of God(s) tends to be serious and respectful. Humour is kept to a minimum, although it is difficult to know whether to cringe or to laugh at the Pope John Paul II bottle opener designed as a souvenir for Christian pilgrims to Rome. Is the opener just bad taste? Or does it cheapen the more high-minded Hindu and Islamic pilgrimage souvenirs sharing the same exhibition wall?

Likewise, how should one respond to a glass box, found among other display cases with images of religious deities, containing a portrait of crooner Elvis Presley and a photograph of Latin American freedom fighter Che Guevara? Both men have developed cult followings akin to those of religious leaders.

But the exhibition organizers are careful not to equate Elvis the Pelvis with Christ or Confucius, there being a big question mark scrawled onto the outside of the display case. You, the viewer, can decide what kind of category, immortal or otherwise, to which Elvis and Che belong.

God(s): A User’s Guide. Until Sept. 3, 2012. Canadian Museum of Civilization, 100 Laurier St.