One of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Rebecca Belmore (b: 1960) started as a performance artist in the late 1980s. Her works address climate change, water access, land use, homelessness, and human displacement. She focuses on conflicting relationships with the state of women’s lives, historical events and violence against Indigenous peoples.
The Toronto artist’s works have searing power (see this post on The Art Junkie when she won the 2013 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.) Facing the Monumental, a survey of her work over 30 years, presents a group of striking sculptures, videos, and photographs that address the pressing questions of our times. It’s on at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal through Oct. 6, 2019.
One of her most recognizable images, Fringe, 2008, part of the exhibition in Montreal, is representative of how Belmore often uses the body to address violence and injustice against First Nations people, especially women.
What appear to be thin rivulets of blood running from the gash are composed of small red beads, a detail that evokes both Belmore’s heritage and the trauma inflicted on indigenous peoples. Despite the graveness of the woman’s injury, Belmore’s Fringe is also about healing. The wound is not fatal, but the scar will never disappear – exhibition notes, MIA
A member of Lac Seul First Nation (Anishinaabe), she is an internationally recognized multidisciplinary artist with a long list of awards. “She tackles the difficult issues of injustice, racism, violence and the plight of the disenfranchised and marginalized in society, convinced that art has the potential to effect social change,” the National Gallery of Canada says in its biography of Belmore.
In her intricate sculptural work, Belmore creates with found material and often uses materials gathered directly from the land. “The shape of the tent is, for me, reminiscent of the wigwam dwellings that are part of my history as an Indigenous person,” Belmore said of the installation (above).
Themes in her work include water, cultural freedom, homelessness, and violence against Indigenous men, women and communities. “Belmore’s use of natural materials, clay, wood, fabrics, nails, and mundane objects like shopping carts, men’s suit jackets, chairs, draws attention to not only Indigenous issues but pressing and timeless issues such as homelessness and migration.” – from a review of Facing the Monumental.
Belmore was born into a large Anishinaabe family in Upsala, Ontario. Growing up, she spent her summers in Northwestern Ontario with her maternal grandparents, who spoke only Ojibwa and taught her a lifestyle of trapping, fishing and foraging from the landscape. She attended a mostly white high school in Thunder Bay, where she boarded with a non-Indigenous family, as is still common for Indigenous youth in the region.
In the mid-1980s, Belmore studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where she began drawing attention to the dispossession of First Nations land and livelihood through performances in public spaces.
“She developed an alter ego named High-Tech Teepee Trauma Mama, whose outrageous antics unsettled audiences by caricaturizing Indigenous stereotypes,” the National Gallery points out. “Her performances from this period, such as Artifact 617B (1988) and Rising to the Occasion (1987–1991), critiqued the hypocrisy of oil corporations and mocked the absurdity of Canada’s ties with the British monarchy.”
“The photograph State of Grace depicts a young Indigenous woman slumbering, draped in white cloth that spills around her body,” the National Gallery says. “She looks serene, relaxed. Yet the paper on which the photograph is printed has been slashed into vertical strips, suggestive of a latent violence inflicted on her body.”
Belmore was awarded the prestigious Gershon Iskowitz Prize by the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2016; the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013; the Hnatyshyn Visual Arts Award in 2009; the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation’s VIVA Award in 2004; and honorary doctorates from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design (2017) and the Ontario College of Art and Design University (2005).
Rebecca Belmore’s website, here.
Facing the Monumental, Montreal exhibition site, here.
Site of the original Facing the Monumental exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Ontario
At the National Gallery of Canada, here
Previous Art Junkie post on Rebecca Belmore, here
“X responds to the Kanehsata:ke resistance of 1990 in the immediate, and the present space of a Price Chopper grocery store in Peterborough, ON. Curve Lake First Nation are having a ceremony across the street to rebury the body of a 2,000-year-old Indigenous man uncovered when the parking lot was created. The artist and the assistant perform repetitive actions of marking, erasing, marking, and erasing large Xs on the grocery store wall while, across the street, a ritual of return, a reburial of what was disturbed and removed, is taking place.” – Rebecca Belmore
This is #45 in the series 150 Artists.