Canadian Performance and Installation Artist
Upsala, Ontario, Canada
Summary of Rebecca Belmore
Rebecca Belmore's work is permanently infused with a sense of distress, displacement, and ultimately full-blown rage regarding the long-standing prejudice and brutal violence experienced by Indigenous peoples. She is dedicated to giving voice and raising awareness surrounding the attempted erasure of Native-American culture and, as such, Belmore was the first aboriginal woman to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2005. She uses a sophisticated aesthetic language privileging beauty as an important artistic tool necessary to make even the most hideous of subject matter accessible. She has an unwavering interest in human connectivity and generates conversation - however painful - from an intimate starting point reaching outwards. As an Indigenous woman, Belmore feels at once silenced and nourished by her roots. Thus although she focuses intensely on her own heritage, a similar tension lies at the heart of all in-depth discussions surrounding identity.
- Belmore is devoted to exposing the magnitude and tragedy of violence against women. More Native-American women are murdered in America and Canada than any other ethnic group. Perpetrators of these heinous crimes are often not brought to justice. Accordingly, traces of violence, including piercing screams, blood, and cut flesh all appear in Belmore's work. Through art, she successfully brings to our attention that even in so-called "civilized" countries at peace, women continue to be humiliated and mindlessly killed.
- Belmore often evokes religion and ritual in her work, including circles of candlelight and shrouded Madonnas. These are similar motifs to those that appear in the work of Cuban émigré artist, Ana Mendieta. Both artists instill certain objects with particular significance and manipulate these with care to explore meaning, a tendency shared with other performative multi-disciplinary female artists including Marina Abramović, Mona Hatoum, and Yoko Ono. Interestingly, all strangers occupying new lands, Belmore joins these notable Performance artists in exploring notions of universal belonging alongside being objectified and labeled as "foreign".
- The use of color symbolism is particularly strong in the work of Belmore and she often uses the color red to signify pain. Furthermore, red usually has the association of blood spilled in the literal physical abuse of aboriginal people. Some works show people bound in red and white fabric in very awkward and difficult-to-maintain positions. Belmore uses these strong colors alongside certain aspects of beauty to capture the viewer's attention. On closer inspection, she reveals that trauma is at the core of her practice but retains too strong belief in the healing power of aesthetic harmony.
- The artist feels a strong connection to nature, and describes herself and all people as "elemental". This idea translates into Belmore's use of materials, as she often uses mud, water, wood, cotton, and animal skin. The natural materials appear at first to bring comfort, but they often also allude to absence and loss, with blood and water spilled and voids created beneath hides and empty clothes. The artist consistently highlights the fact that human misdemeanors betray nature.
Progression of Art
Creation or Death: We Will Win
This work, presented as part of the Fourth Havana Biennial in Cuba, was video recorded and subsequently presented at other venues. During the actual performance, staged in a sixteenth-century colonial fort, Belmore stands at the bottom of the staircase of a large courtyard, with her ankles and wrists bound with bright red string. Suddenly, she raises her head and screams in frustration, before dropping to her knees and pushing piles of sand up the stairs one at a time, working hurriedly and with intense concentration. She breathes heavily and grunts with the labor of physical exertion. Once she has reached the top, she stands up, unties the cords binding her ankles and wrists, and cries out triumphantly.
The performance alludes to the way that marginalized peoples (including Canada's First Nations population, as well as the people of Cuba) struggle to preserve elements of their heritage (represented by the trail of sand left behind as Belmore attempted to move the sand to the top of the stairs) whilst at the same time escape oppression. The colonial fort in which Belmore carried out the performance, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, was constructed by slaves and prisoners forced to labor for the Spanish military. Belmore recalls of the performance, "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." Beyond the direct connection of supporting and standing up for marginalized Native Canadians, Belmore's work speaks up for identity more generally. The red cord signifies a tie of origin, possibly referring to umbilical connection. The work therefore demonstrates that exploration of identity from it's earliest beginnings can be at once invigorating and revelatory, but also potentially suffocating.
Performance - Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba
Mawa-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for Any Purpose
In this installation, Belmore placed several chairs (from her own kitchen as well as the homes of other women in her life) in a circle upon a floor she constructed out of plywood and painted with flowers. A pair of headphones sat upon each chair, and visitors were invited to take a seat and put on the headphones, through which they heard stories of struggle and triumph from various indigenous Canadian women. This work was commissioned for the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Land, Spirit, Power, which was an exhibition of indigenous art marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in Hispanola.
It was important for Belmore to use Native traditions of storytelling and the oral transmission of elder wisdom in this work, as well as the use of the circle as a site of listening, speaking, and developing understanding. Belmore's personal influences were a driving force behind the work, and she explains, "I have with me the influence of my Kokum (grandmother) and my mother... I see their hands in my work... I can see their hands touching hide, cloth, and bead, creating color, beauty: working hands. I look at my hands and I am aware of their hands. That is how I wish to work" The wooden floor she constructed for the chairs to sit on alluded to the importance of the connection between man and nature.
Highlighting connectivity through female family linage is a notion also fully explored by the British/Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum, and particularly in the work Measuring Distance (1988), which features a series of tapped conversations between the artist and her mother. Hatoum is also interested in the kitchen as a setting for art and she returns to this marriage often. As in the work of Belmore, throughout the career of Hatoum, the out dated idea that domestic environments are passive is entirely subverted and kitchens (alongside other previously unremarkable locations) become vibrant places for dialogue and conscious happenings.
Interactive installation (audio recordings, headsets, chairs, plywood, linoleum, wood stain) - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
State of Grace
This black-and-white photographic work presents a young Indigenous woman (Belmore's sister), serene and with eyes closed, draped in white fabric, with her arms cradled across her chest and stomach. The photograph has been cut into inch-wide vertical strips that waver as gallery visitors move past, making the image quite unstable and suggesting that it could change or disappear at any moment. The woman appears angelic, even iconic in her slumber.
British curator Rebecca Travis writes that this work offers "a gentle and intimate reflection on family, memory and sisterhood," with the fluttering of the vertical strips of paper being "breath-like". By contrast, artist and writer Rupert Nuttle sees the physical slashing of the photograph as "suggestive of a latent violence inflicted on her body". Art historian Claire Raymond asserts that the work actually satisfies both interpretations. Raymond recognizes that State of Grace alludes to motherhood; indeed, the sleeping figure's arms are positioned as if cradling an invisible infant, yet at the same time, the image is haunting as it is left ambiguous as to whether the female subject is merely sleeping, or is in fact dead.
In Raymond's words, "in death, she hovers at the edge of the living, she has been given a place of honor, in this image, signifying that she is among the innocent. She inhabits a state of grace, this being a condition of being free from sin - either because she has never sinned or because she has been entirely absolved. The peacefulness and sorrow of the photograph do not cover up the violence of the abduction and murder of indigenous North American women, but instead the image face that fact with a concern for the remembrance of the dead. It commemorates the women who are blameless for the violence that was done to them [...] the model performs symbolically as the holy dead; she gives the dead voice, body, and space". This is a very real concern in Canada and North America, as an unusually high percentage of indigenous American women are reported as missing or murdered. They are entirely innocent as the white cloth signifies; victims of mindless racism, they are stolen from the earthly realm to be restored in the heavenly dimension conjured in this image.
Photograph - Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Vigil (Documented in video as The Named/Unnamed)
This performance, carried out on the street and sidewalk in front of the Firehall Theatre in Vancouver, was part of the first annual Talking Stick Festival, a multi-day event that features work by Indigenous artists. In the Vigil performance, Belmore, wearing blue jeans and a white tanktop, begins by laying out the items she will use in the performance (a bucket of soapy water, a scrub-brush, red rubber gloves wrapped in plastic, votive candles, roses and, and a red dress wrapped in plastic) in a ritualistic manner on the ground around her. She then invites the spectators to wait in silence for a few moments, before removing the red gloves from their plastic wrapper, putting them on, then getting down on all fours to use the bucket of soapy water and scrub-brush to scrub the ground where the rest of the performance will take place.
Next, Belmore opens the package of votive candles and arranges them in a cluster near a wooden board, and lights several of them, before handing the lighter to an audience member and guiding him gently by the hand back over to the candles. The audience member comes to understand that he is to continue lighting the remaining candles. Meanwhile, the artist removes a long red dress from its plastic package and drapes it over the wooden fence on the street, taking care to smooth out any creases. Next, she says aloud the names of sixty women who had disappeared from that particular neighborhood, many of whom were Native-American, and twenty-six of whom were found to be victims of serial killer and pig farmer Robert Pickton who had been arrested earlier that year. The names are also written on her arms in black marker. She pauses for silence between each name. She then uses her teeth to tragically and poignantly pull the head off of a flower. She then picks up the red dress and puts it on, proceeds to nail the dress to the fence, and then rips the clothing away from her body in gestures of violent exertion. The performance was documented in video, titled The Named/Unnamed, and subsequently shown at galleries and museums where a written list of the women's names was made available at the entrance. Both the elements of laying out significant objects and the shedding of clothing recalls the two highly influential early performance works by Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic, Cut Piece (1964) and Rhythm 0 (1974), respectively.
Vigil was intended to highlight the fact that many women who disappear, and particularly those who are Indigenous, go unnamed, existing as invisible ghosts, and the victims of an ongoing colonial mindset that pervades Canadian society. The discovery of several women's remains at Pickton's pig farm highlighted the erroneous assumption that had been commonly communicated by police, who had described many of the area's missing women as prostitutes and drug addicts, and therefore their missing persons' cases were considered less "worthy" of attention. Belmore cleverly implicates the audience members in the ritual of the performance, for instance by having them participate in lighting the candles, thereby implicating them in the system of colonialism that has failed and silenced the disappeared women. Indeed, the location of the performance in the street, rather than in a museum or gallery, necessarily implicates the general public in the performance, reaching beyond the immediate group of spectators to include citizens living out their day-to-day life in nearby streets, some of whom yelled out "WHAT?" in response to hearing Belmore yelling out the list of names.
The entire performance was constructed in such a way as to be highly ritualistic. By pausing for a moment of silence between laying out the items she will use and beginning to wash the ground, and between the reciting of each name, Belmore emphasizes the solemnity of the performance that is taking place, as well as symbolizes the silence that has surrounded the disappearance of many of Vancouver's women. Likewise, the scrubbing of the ground, as Tate explains, "makes the ground available for a hospitable reception for the ghosts of the disappeared women," at the same time as it "raises working-class women's labor of domestic cleaning into the realm of art," (much like in the "maintenance art" of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Loving Care (1993) as performed by Janine Antoni, whereby she used her own hair to mop an entire gallery floor in front of an audience). As is typical, Belmore aligns her practice within a long-standing tradition of art history and it is difficult to understand her visual metaphors without taking time to compare her practice to that of other artists.
This video was presented at the Canadian Pavilion of the 2005 Venice Biennale, making Belmore the first Native woman to represent Canada at the Biennale, and, in fact, the first aboriginal woman of North America to represent a country. The video, back projected onto a screen of falling water, begins with a shot of a lush, green landscape, suddenly interrupted by a burst of flames. Then, Belmore appears, immersed up to her chest in the choppy waves of a large body of water (in fact, filmed at Iona beach in British Columbia). She struggles to scoop some of the water into a metal bucket, which she then hurls toward the camera, while staring directly at the viewer. As it leaves the bucket, the water turns deep red, appearing as blood.
In this performance-based video, Belmore seeks to highlight the power and importance of water, alluding to its role in European colonization. She explains, "We are part of nature, we are elemental, we destroy and we create, and I think that is what the work is really about. And it raises questions about how we're going to deal with water in the future. That's my major concern and what I hope people from the international community will get from the piece. I live in Vancouver, a fountain-obsessed city in which fountains are used as decoration and architectural enhancement. But at the same time, I know that fountains are from this part of the world. So for me as an Aboriginal person, to bring the fountain back to Europe is very meaningful. It's saying, you've gone out and conquered, but now what are you going to do? What are we going to do? And it's interesting because water is a resource in Canada. We're wealthy with water. Maybe it's more valuable than the oil we're pulling out of the ground."
By transforming the water into blood, she underscores the violent impact that such projects of colonization have had on Indigenous peoples. She explains, "When I hurl the contents of the bucket and it washes the screen with blood and I stare at you from one side and you're on the other side, I think that really is the question: How long do I have to do this? How long do I have to say, 'Look at us and listen to us'? I think the Indigenous viewpoint in North America is often dismissed as being trivial. We're nothing, we're of no consequence. That's insane. I am insisting we have a voice and a whole history, we have a point of view and something to offer. We are part of the global human consciousness. We're not just tools for tobacco advertising and for tourism." Belmore also notes that "We've always been violent and we still are violent. If you look at current politics, brutality and colonization continue to go on. So my idea is that between water and blood, we repeat all these acts against one another. It's endless. I question how civilized we are. I question our civility."
Belmore explains the importance of the Iona Beach site at which the video was filmed, stating, "It's an amazing and totally charged site in terms of its history. Because at Iona Beach, you have this sewage, which you can see in the video, but if you don't know what it is, you wouldn't recognize it. For me, it's significant to have it there because it's a four-kilometre pipe that goes out into the ocean - there is a filtration plant and it's pushed out back into the ocean. Then south is the airport, so it's an international site. Then north on the beach, you have these abandoned, renegade logs from the logging industry. We all know how that affects the environment and the rain forests. Then beyond that and across the mouth of the Fraser River is the Musqueam Band - I think they've had a Longhouse there at least for a thousand years. So as a theatre for the video and a theatre for my thinking, that site was really intense."
At Pelican Falls
This work is comprised of various elements, including a silent video projected at one end of a long, narrow gallery space. The video shows a young boy, wearing a black t-shirt, with his back turned to the camera, submerging himself in the blue water of a lake until he disappears entirely. In front of the video, a "sculptural sea" made of a massive single piece of blue denim covers the floor, at one point turning into a small empty shirt.
At Pelican Falls was inspired by a photo found at the Ontario Archives, which was taken by John Macfie in 1955. The photograph shows seven Native boys from the Pelican Falls residential school, all dressed in denim coveralls, perched together on a rock by the shore of Pelican Lake, watching a man fishing in the lake. After viewing the photograph, Belmore (along with her sister, author Florene Belmore and their cousin and Anishinabe artist Scott Benesiinaabandan) spent a week together in early July of 2017 in Sioux Lookout, which is situated just across the lake from the Pelican Falls residential school and it was during this trip that the idea for At Pelican Falls was conceived. The photograph was hung on the wall as part of the work, alongside two other photographs taken of the same scene, which show the boys from the side/front. As curator Wanda Nanibush explains, "For the artist, this was about looking at the people in the photo, honoring them and centering them." Above the photographs is printed a quote that comes from a story written by Belmore's sister, stating, "From the nearby lake comes a call of a loon. The single, lonesome wail rises then falls, cutting through the night, traveling far and clear, carried by the water. The call is followed by another and is the opening that gives way to a chorus of call and response. 'I am here.' 'Where are you?' 'I am here.'"
This work is intended as a tribute to the residential school system that existed in Canada from 1876 to 1996. These boarding schools, often run by Christian and Catholic churches, were made compulsory for several generations of Indigenous children, many of whom were torn away from their families and communities by force. At these schools, children were given new "Euro-Canadian" names, punished for speaking in their Native language or even speaking of their Native culture and traditions, and many experienced extensive verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. As a result of the residential school system, these generations of Indigenous children were unable to carry on Indigenous languages and customs, and the residential school system thus represents an attempt at "cultural genocide" on the part of the Canadian government. The blue denim sea in the installation is meant to represent the fast-moving river that bounded the Pelican Falls school site and acted as a barrier to escape. The denim uniform that emerges represents the survivors of the residential school system. Likewise, Nanibush explains that the boy in the water in the video represents "a cleansing [...] He washes away his experiences." There is a sadness however to the emerging sculptural uniform, as the child has no presence, emptied and hollowed out by continuous oppression.
Video, photographs, and denim - Platform Gallery, Winnipeg, Canada
Biography of Rebecca Belmore
Rebecca Belmore was born into a large Anishinaabe family (part of the Lac Seul First Nation) in Upsala, Ontario, Canada. She was raised in Sioux Lookout, and spent every summer until the age of 16 with her maternal grandparents in Northwestern Ontario, with whom she spoke only in the language of her ancestors, Ojibwa. She explains that her grandmother "resisted the English language" and refused to learn English, whereas Belmore's mother was committed to her speaking only English in order to be able to survive and thrive in "this new world". Belmore's two older brothers were both sent to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their Native language. During these summers, Belmore also learnt from her grandmother about harvesting/foraging food from the land, as well as trapping and fishing.
She was sent to a predominantly white high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she boarded with a non-Indigenous family. As has been the case for many Native youth, this experience caused Belmore to develop a sense of displacement and cultural loss. Due to the feeling of being ostracized, she dropped out, and worked a series of odd jobs before completing her secondary education some years later. While completing her final year, she became close with an art teacher who encouraged her to submit a drawing to a competition, for which she won first prize. Belmore says that she wanted to become an artist "Because I didn't know what else to do. I could have become a truck driver because I liked the road and the freedom of the road. I used to be a waitress in a truck stop. I think that art is freedom and truck driving is freedom."
Education and Early Training
From 1984 to 1987, Belmore attended the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), in Toronto. It was during her time at OCAD that she developed a bold alter-ego named High-Tech Teepee Trauma Mama (who discomforted audiences by enacting outrageously exaggerated Native stereotypes), and began carrying performative interventions in public spaces (such as Artifact 617B (1988) and Rising to the Occasion (1987-1991)). These interventions aimed to draw attention to the "dispossession of First Nations land and livelihood" as well as to the hypocrisy of oil companies and the "absurdity of Canada's ties with the British monarchy".
Richard William Hill writes in his column for Canadianart that the 1980s and early '90s represented a period defined by the struggles of the first large wave of art-school-trained Indigenous artists to make space for themselves in galleries, museums, and magazines. The best works of those artists - including Rebecca Belmore, and also James Luna, Jimmie Durham, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Edgar Heap of Birds, Edward Poitras, to name only a few - changed how we imagine ourselves and our place in the world. Hill goes as far to call this moment in art history, an "Indigenous Renaissance".
It is true that 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 traveled to Cuba to participate in the Fourth Havana Biennial. A video of her performance, Creation or Death: We will win (1991), along with other performances (typically low-tech film recordings rather than the ambitious installations of today) from this period formed a key part of the artist's recent major overview exhibition Facing the Monumental held at the MAC, Canada. Critics commenting on Belmore's early career noted that she honed the art of "speaking without language". It became clear early in her career that through the use of performance, Belmore directly confronts and engages her audience in dialogues regarding colonial violence and the erasure of identity. Art historian Claire Bishop has described this as the "unease and discomfort" that can in fact increase a participatory work's "artistic impact", impressing upon viewers that these issues continue to impact a great number of Canadians, even today.
In 2000, Belmore joined the Pari Nadimi Gallery in Toronto, which was her first commercial gallery. She also had a breakthrough exhibition in 2002 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver, and over the next few years produced some of her most influential works, including Wild (2001), The Great Water (2002), Vigil (2002), White Thread (2003), and Fountain (2005). The partnership with the Pari Nadimi Gallery lasted until 2006, when Belmore tried to cut ties with the gallery, requesting compensation for works sold as well as requesting the return of the remainder of her collection. The gallery claimed breach of contract and sued Belmore for $750,000. Not long after her separation from the Pari Nadimi Gallery, Belmore began working with curator Wanda Nanibush, and their personal and professional relationship has endured for over a decade.
Belmore was awarded an honorary PhD degree from OCAD in 2005, due to her success at the Venice Biennale earlier that same year. She was later awarded another honorary doctorate of Fine Arts (honoris causa) degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2019. She has also received the Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award in 2009, and the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013.
Beginning in 2001, Belmore lived for nearly twelve years in Vancouver, before moving with her husband and fellow collaborator, Cuban-born artist Osvaldo Yero Montero, to Winnipeg in the summer of 2012. Belmore explains that this move happened "mainly because Vancouver was becoming too expensive to survive as an artist on an artist's income". Then, in autumn of 2014, the couple moved again to Montreal, because "the winter conditions [in Winnipeg were] too extreme." However, Belmore has had to admit that the winters in Montreal aren't much more bearable. She stated in 2014 that "It's basically about us trying to find a better space ... to live together as two artists [...] we're still unsettled and we don't know where we want to end up. Perhaps Cuba. We've discussed [Cuba] for many, many years. But as one gets older and winter seems colder, it seems more attractive. Plus, Osvaldo's been here for 20 years and I think it's my turn to reciprocate and to allow him to spend some solid, quality time with his own people in his own language and culture."
The Legacy of Rebecca Belmore
Similar to James Luna, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña in the United States, Canadian Rebecca Belmore has contributed to the international contemporary art world by developing a performance vocabulary for the representation of a (distinctly female) First Nations identity in art. Julie Nagam (Chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America) asserts, "Belmore's body challenges the colonial gaze by establishing Indigenous people as a presence instead of an absence." Likewise, Indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson states that "Belmore carries herself into spaces in an unapologetic, foundational way [...] colonialism rips Indigenous peoples away from land, language, culture, family, away from our own knowledge system and away from the ability to feel at home in our own bodies - our dispossession is expansive. Belmore refuses this dispossession. She attaches herself to her body as home and carries herself into whatever space she is in, as if she belongs, as if she is supposed to be there. Because of course she is, we are. She creates and holds a decolonial presence that gifts me with the feeling and experience of freedom."
Belmore explains, "I take a moment through performance to create a space to acknowledge [that] what is going on is important." In this arena of performance speaking often of specifically female issues, Belmore joins a host of iconic women interested in similar themes. These include Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, and Mona Hatoum. All explore notions of belonging in contrast to foreignness and attempt to dissolve this unhelpful boundary, along with other meaningless barriers that only serve to create harm. Alongside such good company, Belmore's work continues to inspire younger generations of artists to always practice care and resilience even when confronted by prejudice and division.