Divya Mehra, There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána), 2020, coffee, sand, chamois leather, leather cord, metal grommets, 2.4 lbs. Photo by Sarah Fuller. Image courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

While preparing for her upcoming exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery at the University of Regina, Canadian artist Divya Mehra uncovered the colonial history behind a misidentified 18th-century statue in its collection. As a result of her research, the museum has repatriated the figure, which was looted from an Indian shrine over a century ago; it has since acquired a work created by Mehra about the statue in its stead.

In the fall of 2019, Mehra was invited to engage with the MacKenzie’s permanent collection for From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away), a forthcoming show of new and recent work by the artist exploring “the West’s obsession with simultaneously defining and consuming the histories and identities of other cultures.” During a site visit to the museum, she encountered the stone statuette, which was catalogued as a representation of Vishnu, the Hindu god associated with preserving life. She quickly realized that the figure had been misidentified. Mehra told Hyperallergic: “Recognizing that the clearly female stone figure was not Vishnu, I reached out to Dr. Siddhartha V. Shah, curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, who revealed that the deity depicted was in fact Annapoorna, also known as the Queen of Benares.” Annapoorna is the Hindu goddess of nourishment; in this representation, she holds a spoon in one hand and a bowl of kheer, an Indian rice pudding, in the other.

The artifact was among those in the museum’s namesake collection, a 1936 bequest from art collector and lawyer Norman MacKenzie. Mehra developed suspicions about the object’s provenance when she saw that MacKenzie had acquired it directly from India, particularly in light of his friendship with the American antiquarian Edgar James Banks, a major looter of cuneiform tablets who has been said to have inspired the character of Indiana Jones. Reading MacKenzie’s papers, Mehra found that MacKenzie had seen the statue at a riverbank shrine in Benares during a 1913 trip to India and expressed his desire to own it. When his guide refused to give him the figure, a stranger who overheard the conversation offered to steal it for him. MacKenzie took the statue, freshly pilfered from an active temple, home to Canada and misidentified it as a portrayal of Vishnu. Mehra brought her findings to the MacKenzie’s Interim CEO John Hampton and encouraged him to repatriate the artifact to India.

“My initial conversations around repatriation with Hampton were quite positive, and the statue was repatriated recently over Zoom,” Mehra said. The repatriation process officially began on November 19 with a ceremonial virtual meeting between the University of Regina’s’s Interim President and Vice-Chancellor Thomas Chase and the Indian High Commissioner to Canada Ajay Bisaria. The Zoom event was also attended by representatives from the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Global Affairs Canada, and Canada Border Services Agency.

Figure of Annapoorna (Benares, India, 18th century), artist unknown, stone, 17.30 x 9.90 x 4.90 cm. Photo: Don Hall.

In a statement, Chase said: “As a university we have a responsibility to right historical wrongs and help overcome the damaging legacy of colonialism wherever possible. Repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today.”

“We are delighted that this unique statue of Annapoorna is on her way home,” High Commissioner Bisaria told the media. “The move to voluntarily repatriate such cultural treasures shows the maturity and depth of India-Canada relations.” Though the statue is being returned to India, its final destination within the country has yet to be decided. In the meantime, the MacKenzie is conducting provenance research on other antiquities in its collection deemed suspicious.  

Mehra’s exhibition, which opened on August 7 and runs through January 2, 2021, includes a sculpture that she made in response to her findings on the Annapoorna statue. Titled “There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána)” (2020), the piece nods to the iconic scene in the 1981 film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Jones steals a golden idol and leaves a bag of sand in its place.

“The work is a small bag of sand — purchased at a Hollywood prop store (rich in Indiana Jones memorabilia) and artificially aged with coffee, and dye —weighing the equivalent (2.4 lbs) of the stolen stone sculpture of Annapoorna that is no longer a part of the collection,” Mehra said. “The bag sits upon an altar constructed as if for a film set, in front of a ‘Jungle Vine’ painted backdrop.”

In response to discussions about “the gap in the collection” left by the repatriation of the Annapoorna statue, Mehra proposed that the MacKenzie acquire her sculpture on the topic to fill the void. The MacKenzie took her up on the suggestion, and “There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away” has now entered the museum’s permanent collection.

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)