There is the Rising: Shelley Niro’s Reckoning Retrospective

Shelley Niro, "Abnormally Aboriginal," 2014 (2022 reprint). Courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

When it comes to critical analysis of an Indigenous artist’s output, there is a tendency to circumscribe. We want to capture and we want to contain—the work, the ethos, the artist herself. We ask restrictedly of Indigenous artists: Is this a serious artist grappling with heavy political themes, or is she the funny one? The one primarily interested in gender? History? Aesthetics? Is she the traditional one, or the contemporary one?

Shelley Niro is all of them. 500 Year Itch is her first major retrospective, spanning four decades of multi-genre, multimedia work; its first stop was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, then the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH), where the exhibition just completed its public viewing, and it will soon travel to the National Gallery of Canada. Niro usually works in series, and her media include photography, film, painting, installation, sculpture, beadwork, and mixed media. During my visit to the AGH, the sheer range of work on display made it clear to me that here was an artist at play: with ideas, medium, identity, and interpretation. Niro’s art, much like her existence, cannot be confined, contained, or categorized. Instead her art braids together both the dismal reality of ongoing colonial violence and the joyful resilience of Indigenous existence.

Many of Niro’s pieces tease and wink at the viewer—gestures that feel akin to the artist sticking out her tongue and running away. Standing in front of these pieces, I could almost hear her giggling as she receded with a cheeky “you can’t catch me” defiance. Her use of humor underscores the tragicomic absurdity of dominant narratives and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. In 500 Year Itch, a portrait series titled The Shirt (2003) exemplified this ethos and set the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

Shelly Niro, The Rebel, 1987/reprinted 2022. Collection and courtesy of the artist.

Details from Shelley Niro’s The Shirt, 2003. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Hung horizontally, with seven portraits bookended by two photographs of land—a constant backdrop and presence in Niro’s art—The Shirt first presents an Indigenous woman wearing a T-shirt with the words “The Shirt” emblazoned across her chest. Subsequent portraits show the same individual wearing similar T-shirts with different messages such as “My ancestors were annihalated [sic] exterminated murdered and massacred” and “Attempts were made to assimilate colonize enslave and displace them.” Closer to the end of the series, there is a panel in which the woman is not wearing a T-shirt at all, and ultimately the portraits conclude with a white woman in a T-shirt that reads “And all’s I get is this shirt.” The shift in the messages and images, from somber to insouciant, is striking.Niro is an artist whose work has always been ahead of her time, and her photographs, like this series, have the jauntiness of memes. On the surface, internet memes are a source of light entertainment, but the most effective among them are succinct, snappy tools for self-expression, connection, and political subversion.

**

500 Year Itch organizes Niro’s art around four constant and recurring themes: “Past Is Present,” “Actors,” “Matriarchy,” and “Family Relations.” Each of the four themes spread out and branch off into other subthemes.

At the AGH, within the section “Past Is Present” played one of Niro’s short films, Niagara (2015). It pays homage to Niro’s roots. She was born near Niagara Falls in 1954, and the waterfalls are a symbol she returns to frequently in her work. She often considers the history of the Falls, their spiritual significance for the Haudenosaunee people, as well as the landmark’s current carnivalesque commercialism.

Amid this reckoning and remembrance of her childhood hung La Pieta (2007), a series of seven photographs that depict water, land, trees, and a single male torso, each image framed by a beaded two-row wampum belt on red cloth. This work begins and ends with photographs of water in motion, making it clear that Niro is communicating concerns and connections that transcend geography. Indeed, she says as much in the accompanying audio guide provided by the museum, wherein she explicitly informs us that she was thinking about the wars in the Middle East during the early 2000s. Since the Second Gulf War triggered my own family’s immigration to Canada, it’s especially electrifying for me to discover that Niro was contemplating the wars in the Middle East at around the same time my family and I were escaping them. The use of nature photographs in La Pieta—in both close-up as well as sweeping landscapes—invite the viewer to reflect on the links between resource exploitation, Western imperialism, and the global struggle of Indigenous peoples against settler-colonial violence. Such struggles still play out brutally and violently today. I was already feeling solemn and nostalgic before encountering the series that day, and my eye returned over and over to the photograph in the middle, of a lithe, smooth torso. The torso is clearly male. Clearly young.

La Pieta implores us to consider: who truly pays the price of war?

Shelley Niro, La Pieta (detail), 2007. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

As I revisited the piece in my mind’s eye, the answer bounced back to me from the photograph of the singular torso. By positioning this one torso as the focal point, Niro subverts how we usually process the nameless, faceless victims of war as an incomprehensible mass. By centering the sole body, framed by beading and framed again by a red cloth border, Niro reminds viewers how each and every life is sacrosanct and how the devastating effect of even one loss ripples through communities and generations, across man-made borders and divisions.

To the query of who truly pays the price of war, Niro emphatically answers: the children. It is always our children who pay with their lives because the past is the present, and there is no escaping our histories. Niro’s Pieta is a bold, haunting piece that reminds us that there is no future without acknowledging and honoring the slaughtered and our troubled waters.

**

I am primarily a poet and sometimes a novelist. It is entirely my loss that I did not know of Niro’s work earlier (and what a shame that mainstream Canadian history and art institutions erased and ignored Indigenous artists for so long), for she and I have been grappling with similar subject matters in our art-making: settler colonialism, imperialism, intergenerational trauma, gender equality. Moreover (and this is particularly thrilling and affirming for me), we have both been intentional, adamant even, in sewing together humor and trauma on the blank canvas and page. Hope and history exist synchronously in our art. Blood and ink blend and bleed into the other.

Looking at Niro’s art, I wonder what might it have meant for a younger me to come upon it earlier in my creative life. What might I have said to Niro if I had had the privilege of being in dialogue with her?

Ah, you too?

Oh, we’re in this together?

Oof, we’re not alone?

Really, we could tear this down and (re)build anew together?

Oh.

Oh.

**

Near La Pieta, a table-height glass dome encased 1779 (2017). On its surface, the mixed-media sculpture is a colorful, exuberant rendering of Niagara Falls. Niro covered a pair of stiletto boots in blue satin and velvet and overlaid them with long strands of white beadwork, which flow down and cascade into a blue pool. The boots are encircled by a ring of red cloth wherein the numbers “1779” are beaded in a white flourish. The flashiness evokes the ostentatious, touristic nature of the falls, yet the use of red throughout and the reference to the year 1779 reminds of the violence, displacement, and exile that occurred at this site during the American Revolutionary War.

Shelley Niro, 1779, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photograph: Robert McNair.

 

The exuberance of a decorative piece like 1779 sits in contrast with the mostly monochromatic, serious tone of the nearby La Pieta. Placed together in the same room, these pieces invited viewers to ruminate upon the violence inflicted upon Indigenous people in Canada and on how, despite such horrors, they survived. As in life, the two realities sit side by side.

Again and again, Niro reminds us: This here is the destruction. This, there is the rising. Bead by bead.

**

Within the gallery’s section titled “Matriarchy,” a room paid homage to murdered and missing Indigenous women. What is extraordinary to me is that within this space, which Niro lined with her series of color inkjet prints, M: Stories of Women (2011), she placed in its center a bronze sculpture, Mother and Child (1990).

The sculpture is of a woman and a child. The woman’s full body is shown. She is spread belly-down on the ground reaching her arms toward a child who is crafted from the arms up. The child’s torso is submerged. Missing.

The two figures do not touch. It appears the child has fallen through ice and is in danger of succumbing to the cold and drowning. It is a moment captured in medias res. We cannot know the moment ahead for these two: Maybe the mother is able to inch forward, stretch farther, and save her child. Maybe it is the child who springs up, and in so doing, saves the mother from unimaginable grief. What we can intuit to be true is that whether the child sinks or soars, each figure’s fate—as in life—is inextricably bound to the other’s.

Over and over, Niro emphasizes that beyond the discordance of ethnicity, economics, and religion, you and I—we—are tightly interconnected, stitched together in the fabric of each other’s histories and our futures.

Shelley Niro, Mother and Child, 1990. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the artist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *