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Statue stolen by Mackenzie Art Gallery namesake returned to temple in India

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A stolen statue has been returned to a temple in India, 108 years after it was taken by the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s namesake.

The statue is identified as the Hindu Goddess Annapurna. It was taken from a public shrine on the shore of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India in 1913, at the direction of Norman MacKenzie.

MacKenzie died in 1936 and left his art collection, along with the statue, to the University of Saskatchewan.

“He also left them the funds to build a gallery. So, that’s basically how the Mackenzie Art Gallery came to be in the early 1950s,” said Alex King, curator of the U of R President’s Art Collection.

The statue eventually became part of the University of Regina’s collection at the Mackenzie Art Gallery. Then last year, it was discovered in the gallery’s vault by artist Divya Mehra, while she was doing research for an exhibition.

“She came across this idol in our collection and saw that some things were off about it,” said John Hampton, the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s CEO and executive director.

Mehra realized the statue had been mis-categorized and decided to look into it’s origin further.

“In our files, we have these original stories dictated by Norman Mackenzie about how he acquired some of these objects,” said Hampton. “She read those files and found a really disturbing story about him rowing down the Ganges River with his guide and seeing this idol in an active shrine.”

Mehra then alerted U of R and gallery administration to the documentation identifying the statue as an object of culture theft.

“It certainly didn’t take much persuasion for us to make the decision that we wanted to repatriate it,” said King.

The institutions contacted the Indian government, and those involved held a virtual repatriation ceremony last November.

Last week, the statue began the journey from New Delhi to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, India, the same spot where it was taken in 1913.

“Over four days, she slowly travelled to 18 different communities on this beautiful throne and precession,” said Hampton.

The statue arrived at the temple on Monday.

“She’s known as the Queen of Varanasi, so this is a very important idol to that community,” said Hampton.

During the ceremony on Monday, community members reinstalled the sacredness in the idol, before placing it in the newly-installed temple.

“Looking at that footage and how she was received with such love and care, I think it really reinforces why repatriation is so important,” King said.

To honour the fact that the statue has returned home, the gallery is exhibiting Mehra’s 2020 sculpture of a bag of sand, which was purchased at a Hollywood prop store and artificially aged by Mehra. The bag weighs the same amount as the statue, as is intended to take the sculpture’s place in the gallery.

“Anyone familiar with Indiana Jones knows this glorification of this type of tomb raiding activity,” said Hampton. “Divya did an inverse of that: coming in here, taking an object from our collection and replacing it with this bag of sand.”

When the exhibit is not on display, the bag of sand will be placed in the gallery’s vault, in the same drawer where the statue once was.

“That will forever be there as a placeholder to mark that history,” said Hampton.

In light of these events, Hampton said the gallery has been in talks with the U of R to review the full Norman Mackenzie collection for any other works that may be objects of culture theft. Hampton said, while none have been identified at this point, he expects some will be found.

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