Indian Church 1929
Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929
Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 68.9 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
In Indian Church, one of Carr’s most important works, a dense wall of forest engulfs the church, which Carr paints in vivid white, a stark contrast to the dark forest. Against this backdrop the church is miniaturized, signifying both the incursion and the vulnerability of the new beliefs introduced by the settler population. The small church, built by the local Nuu-chah-nulth tribe of the Yuquot community, symbolized for Carr the First Nations’ hybrid assimilation of Christianity, which she regarded as a sympathetic version of a faith she shared. As if in some sort of time-lapse photography, the small cross at the apex of the church steeple seems to fall to earth, multiplying into a cluster of crosses marking the graves of the dead. These crosses suggest a gathering of the faithful and at the same time stand in testament to the church’s failed mission. The building’s windowless walls and reduced features create another “marker,” suggesting a structure that is both monolithic and uninhabitable. Carr’s rendering reveals the mission’s loneliness and impossibility—the tree boughs lean down heavily and sweep up forcefully from the bottom of the picture, as if to show the implausibility of a meeting place between two vastly different spiritual forces.
In 1929 Carr travelled by steamer up the west coast of Vancouver Island. She spent time in the Mowachaht village of Yuquot, where she sketched the small Catholic church pictured here. A painting of a church represents a philosophical departure for Carr: during her earlier trips, she had taken no interest in the mission churches that had been built in the Native villages in the region, choosing instead to focus on indigenous forms of spiritual expression.
Indian Church was included in the National Gallery of Canada's Fifth Annual Exhibition of Canadian Art in 1930. Lawren Harris (1885–1970) bought the painting and hung it in his house, declaring it to be her best work. In 1938 Indian Church was selected for A Century of Canadian Art at the Tate Gallery, in London, an exhibition that Vincent Massey called “a most representative showing of Canadian painting and sculpture, including all schools and all periods.”