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Vancouver museum pulls exhibition showing portraits of missing and murdered women

Citing "serious concerns" and fears of causing "further distress," the Museum of Anthropology has cancelled an exhibition of paintings of missing and murdered women from the city's Downtown Eastside.

The large-scale portraits by Vancouver-based artist Pamela Masik were to be installed at the museum on the University of British Columbia campus in February. But on Wednesday, the museum released a prepared statement from its director Anthony Shelton, saying he has made "the very difficult decision" to cancel the show.

"A director has to be pretty certain it's not going to work to cancel an exhibition," Dr. Shelton said in an interview on Wednesday. "I was convinced it wasn't going to work."

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Ms. Masik began painting portraits of the women about five years ago after coming across a missing-persons poster in the Downtown Eastside, where she lived and painted at the time. Using the original poster as her reference, she created 69 portraits, including depictions of the six women Robert Pickton was ultimately convicted of murdering.

Three metres high, the works are unflinching portrayals of the women - often beaten, or appearing drugged. The paintings are not signed with the artist's name, but bear the names of the women they depict. She called her project The Forgotten.

"I was upset and sad," said Ms. Masik, about the cancellation. "I put five years of my life into this work."

Dr. Shelton said the problem wasn't the art itself but the failure of the museum to mobilize all the constituencies it had hoped to involve - including DTES community groups - in order to properly examine the issue of violence against women. He said it became clear, despite months of concerted efforts, that a helpful dialogue was unlikely to result from the exhibition.

"There are too many unresolved issues surrounding it, and serious concerns have been raised by some individuals and groups that by showing the paintings, we might cause further distress to the families and friends of the missing and murdered women, as well as to others in the communities most affected by the issues we sought to address," Dr. Shelton said in his statement.

"I know that there were some ... organizations that felt that I was exploiting these women," Ms. Masik said in an interview Wednesday, "but I saw my role as an artist was to really acknowledge and bear witness to what went on ... and I personally don't think that not showing these paintings is going to make any change. It's almost as if we're repeating a pattern within society that we're just going to ignore the issues."

Dr. Shelton said he was not pressured to cancel the exhibition but felt "strongly" that it couldn't work. "And I felt it was too important a subject to fail. We would only have one go at it."

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Instead, in February, MOA will host a "teach-in" involving Ms. Masik and some of the constituencies Dr. Shelton had hoped to involve in the exhibit.

The artist is focusing on getting the work exhibited elsewhere. "I'm very positive about taking this to another level and I feel there's another museum in Canada that wants to show this collection, and won't shy away from the controversy."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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