Beauty in Difficult Places: the Visual World of Rebecca Belmore
Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental, which opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario this July, covers over three decades of the renowned artist’s work. It includes documentation of early performances, photographs, sculptures and several large-scale installations. Curated by Wanda Nanibush, who has collaborated with Belmore throughout her career, it is the largest survey of the artist’s work to date and draws visitors into her rich visual world while forcing them to contend with the unresolved histories and ongoing traumas of settler colonialism in Canada. “As an Anishinaabe woman, I’m interested in addressing issues that pertain to my own history and my own community,” Belmore told the filmmaker Danielle Sturk in 2013. “What drives me as an artist [is] to find beauty in difficult places.”
A member of Lac Seul First Nation, 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 performative interventions in public space. She developed an alter ego named High-Tech Teepee Trauma Mama, whose outrageous antics unsettled audiences by caricaturizing Indigenous stereotypes. 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.
Belmore’s ability to expose the hard, unvarnished truths of colonial power earned her international recognition throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1991, she travelled to Cuba to participate in the Fourth Havana Biennial. A video of her performance, Creation or Death: We will win (1991), is included in Facing the Monumental, along with a half-dozen other performances from this period. It shows Belmore at the bottom of a stairwell in a 16th-century colonial fort. Her mouth, wrists and ankles are bound. She raises her head and lets out a scream, then falls to her knees and starts pushing a pile of sand up the stairs. At a rushed, frantic pace, she vaults her body from step to step, leaving a trail of sand in her wake. When she reaches the top, she stands up, removes her bonds and cries out triumphantly.
The performance still carries a poignant symbolism: of a people struggling to rise out of oppression while desperately preserving some vestige of their heritage. Like Canada, modern-day Cuba emerged through the erasure of its first inhabitants. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, where Belmore performed, was built by slaves and prisoners who were forced into labour to serve Spain’s military interests. In a recent interview, Belmore told the writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson that she sensed that resonance. “I realized I didn’t have to speak [before the performance]. I could use my body to speak and speak without language. That was really a turning point. I was bound with my hands and ankles moving towards the sky and freedom, which I think really changed, for me, the way I saw myself working in the future. That was a pivotal moment.”
Over the next two decades, Belmore developed a lexicon of physical and material gestures in her work. She honed the art of “speaking without language”. With a breakthrough exhibition in 2002 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver, she branched out from performance into sculpture, photography and video installation, establishing herself among the most vital contemporary artists working in Canada. Three pieces from that exhibition —State of Grace (2002), Blood on the snow (2002) and The Named and the Unnamed (2002) — are included in Facing the Monumental. They form a thematic backbone for the exhibition.
The photograph State of Grace depicts a young Indigenous woman slumbering, draped in white cloth that spills around her body. 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. Similarly, the large-scale sculpture Blood on the snow looks innocent enough: a massive white duvet spread out over the floor. But, at its centre, a blood-stained chair evokes an underlying darkness. It’s a reference to the hundreds of Miniconjou Sioux slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890, whose bodies were frozen underneath a blizzard. In The Named and the Unnamed, Belmore’s tribute to the dozens of women — many Indigenous — whose disappearance from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was too long overlooked, she seems to direct her ceremonial actions towards an unseen evil. She shrieks out their names as if to call the women home.
In a suite of recent sculptures, Belmore has expanded on the theme of displacement, situating her work within a global context. Her contribution to last year’s Documenta 14, in Athens, was a tent carved out of marble, titled Biinjiya’iing Onji (From Inside) (2017; acquired by the National Gallery of Canada). Installed outdoors, on a hillside opposite the Acropolis, it produced a tense dialogue between that ancient monument to democratic ideals and the migrant populations now forced to make homes from scant materials.
With Tower (2018), tarpaulin (2018) and Thin Red Line (2009), Belmore alludes to the social impacts of climate change and economic disparity, the worst of which have yet to come. “The world will be a different place in 20 years, and we have no idea what that looks like,” she commented recently. “I think that’s why we have conversations, that’s why we have to listen, that’s why we make art.”
Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, until October 21, 2018. See also her works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada . To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.