Important Art by Rebecca Belmore
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.
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.
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.