An Interview with Shelley Niro
Multimedia artist Shelley Niro has been widely credited with changing how people look and think about Indigenous art and artists. But her photographs also challenge stereotypes, clichés and every day conventions. While her creative lens frequently focuses on First Nations people and communities, she also slyly skewers pop culture, religion, European culture and colonialism. The results are images that are powerful, acerbic, provocative and frequently hilarious.
Niro was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1954 and now lives in Brantford, Ontario. She is a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) Nation, Turtle Clan. Her work includes painting, beadwork, sculpture, installation, film and photography.
Niro graduated from the Ontario College of Art with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture and painting. She then earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Western Ontario. She was the inaugural recipient of the Aboriginal Arts Award presented through the Ontario Arts Council in 2012. In 2017, she received both a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Scotiabank Photography Award.
In this interview, Shelley Niro talks about pushing creative boundaries while accepting personal limitations.
NGC Magazine: What was your childhood like and how did that environment influence your decision to become an artist?
SN: Childhood has a lot of great memories. We lived on the Six Nations Reserve where there were plenty of empty fields and lots of trees. At the time, I didn’t give too much thought to being an artist, but now I feel I rely on those memories constantly: the sun beating down on my fresh young face; the winter winds almost knocking me over on my walk home from school; the sound of wind through the trees and birds singing. These memories have placed themselves within my brain. I can always go there.
NGCM: What impact did your family have on your art as a young, emerging artist, and what impact do they continue to have on your work?
SN: My family was a creative bunch of people. My mother could have been a successful artist in her own right. But mostly the things she made at the kitchen table were meant to be sold at pow-wows and tourist shops. Her hands were always doing something. I suppose this activity continues to wiggle its way into my daily life: if I’m not doing something, I feel I am wasting time. Although now that I’m getting older, I can no longer do beadwork at night, even with a good lamp.
NGCM: Who have been your greatest artistic influences?
SN: One of my earliest influences was Daphne Odjig. I remember seeing her naturalistic reproductions and was amazed by her technique and her subject matter. It was probably on a set of hasty notes where she had drawn a wood cutter and kids playing in the snow. I remember thinking it was wonderful, and knowing an Indian woman did it astounded me. I’ve tried drawing all my life and could never get close to her renditions. In my own community, there were teachers who painted watercolours of Iroquois people in traditional clothing. These hung on school walls. I always looked closely at their ability and their desire to make these paintings.
NGCM: You take a unique approach to art, constantly pushing boundaries, challenging stereotypes and clichés. What are you trying to accomplish?
SN: I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to themselves to push their own boundaries. It’s always seeing where you will end up and not knowing where you will go in that journey.
NGCM: Why are you trying to change how we look at Indigenous art and people?
SN: The portrayal of Indigenous people has always been such that it has been a commodity to how the land is looked at. Marketing has used that image to its own advantage. So, the image of Indigenous people has been limited. And when that image is deconstructed people don’t know how to accept it and can’t see beyond its limitations.
NGCM: The National Gallery of Canada houses several of your works. Are there one or two pieces that you are particularly pleased to have in the national collection and why?
SN: There are quite a few pieces at the National Gallery of Canada. It’s hard to choose which two I like best. Whenever I finish a piece I always feel like it’s the best one I’ve ever done. And it’s true when artists talk about their work having a bit of their soul embedded in it. Everything takes so long from conception of the piece to sitting down and making it. Whole histories of the time invested in the work is in each piece.
NGCM: This past May, you won the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award. What do awards like that, and the Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts, mean for your creative practice?
SN: Receiving the Scotiabank Photography Award and the Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts means a great deal to me. There have been years where I have had to continue working towards something I could not see or envision. Work that didn’t seem to have any impact anywhere. If anything, this makes up for those skinny years.
NGCM: What role do you feel your art plays in a world that is constantly questioning gender, identity and sexuality? Are you pushing the conversation?
SN: I think I have tried to be aware of the world around me. Sometimes the questions of gender, identity and sexuality do play a conscious part in my work. Lately though, I am not so drawn to making big statements about these areas. I am more concerned about making my own voice, which I hope interprets into the abstract. I find this more interesting.
NGCM: Where do you find inspiration for your work? What catches your creative eye?
SN: This is a tough question to answer. I work all the time. I have file folders in my head of work I want to do in the future. I never run out of ideas, but I’m afraid my eyesight will leave me before I have a chance to make the stuff I want to make. Looking at the drawers of unused beads in my cupboard catches my creative eye. I open them up and say to myself, ‘I better use these some day. I feel like a hoarder.’
NGCM: You work in a broad range of mediums — beading, sculpture, etc. Some are very traditional, others — video and photography, for example — are more current and evolving. Is there one you prefer? Does the more traditional work play into, or inform, the modern-day techniques?
SN: It’s always a question of what can I do in my space. I can only paint so big. With photography, I’m limited by the size of plexiglass or the mats the framing store can order. It’s all very ordinary coordinates. But realizing your limitations makes it easier somehow.
NGCM: What would you like to turn your eye to, or put your focus on, next? Is there a subject or project you have in mind?
SN: I would like to focus on film if I had the chance. It is such a costly medium. I believe it’s the most democratic form of art making right now. If it’s marketed and distributed correctly, communities — particularly Indigenous communities that don’t have access to seeing films — can access video and film that will speak to them. It’s important to make visual art where people can recognize themselves and participate as an audience member.
NGCM: What advice do you have for emerging artists?
SN: To the emerging artist I say, take advice when it helps and ignore the rest when it doesn’t. Buy the best materials you can afford. And work hard. Life is short.