On the occasion of Hart House’s Centennial, internationally renowned, Toronto-based artist Deanna Bowen revisits The God of Gods, an early 20th century play, to examine the foundations of racialized cultural identity in Canada.

Written in 1919 by Carroll Aikins (1888-1967), founder of the first national theatre in Canada and artistic director of Hart House Theatre (1927–29), the play was staged at Hart House in 1922 with White actors performing a caricatured cast of Indigenous characters. Encompassing a film, photographs and archival materials, the exhibition God of Gods: A Canadian Play will be on view at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House from September 4 – November 30, 2019.

Aikins’ play, staged at Hart House in 1922, projected the horrors of war into a loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — using “native” motifs and casting White actors in red-face. The play is steeped in primitivism, a manufactured construct that positioned Indigenous cultures as naïve precursors to European civilization. In the past, The God of Gods has been presented as an example of seminal Canadian theatre, and it continues to be celebrated as an important play in Canadian history.

Bowen’s project visualizes the social and political networks that, in the early twentieth century, came to shape long-lasting and deeply entrenched ideas of Canadian culture. Curated by Barbara Fischer, and contextualized with an essay and research by Maya Wilson-Sanchez, this multi-layered installation traces the intertwined voices of individuals such as Vincent Massey, the founder of Hart House and later the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, and artists and writers such as A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley, and Carroll Aikin. It also touches upon institutions that include not only Hart House, but also the Arts and Letters Club and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In her essay that accompanies the exhibit, writer Maya Wilson-Sanchez states that “Bowen’s exhibition highlights the nature of an emerging Canadian identity as one shaped by nationalist, White, and settler ideals. Her project maps how colonial ideas about Indigenous cultures and cultural production were mobilized to create a national aesthetic.”

The project can be viewed at University of Toronto Art Centre at 15 King’s College Circle. For more information call 416-978-1838.

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