Rebecca Belmore: Challenging perception and identity +dentity
Contemporary Aboriginal artist Rebecca Belmore looks into the crowd. With a crack in her voice and a quiver of her lip, she yells, “I can’t fucking take this anymore!”
She repeats herself. Again. Again. Again. And again, every utterance emanating with passion and intensity, in front of a crowd in Kitchener City Hall.
This was the beginning of her lecture and the beginning of her story towards finding an answer to her well- documented problem. It was also the beginning of a new artistic path; it culminated in her piece, Worth (- Statement of Defence), which shocked the art world.
For eight years now, Belmore has been in a legal battle with her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi. Nadimi claims that Belmore terminated their contract without notice, interfered with the gallery’s business, and caused over a million dollars worth of losses.
Despite the lawsuit, since the dispute began she has made her voice clearer and louder. She has not shied away from performing. Instead, she has performed as resolutely as ever.
While Belmore’s lecture for the night interwove the narrative of her very personal ongoing legal saga with the added context of her artwork, the theme for the night was her strength as an artist and in her will to express her views.
“It’s challenging my rights [as an artist], but I’m determined,” Belmore said, in an interview with Imprint. “I have no choice but to see this through. I have to go to trial. I have no choice but to face the music and deal with it and, eventually, put it behind me.”
With a career spanning 25 years now, Belmore has been established as one of the most prominent Aboriginal artists in Canada, pushing women and Aboriginal issues to the forefront of the art world.
The strength of her artistic aesthetic is matched only by her fervour for bringing her ethics into her work. According to Belmore, it creates a more complete work that brings more attention.
“I try to put them together [referring to her aesthetics and ethics],” Belmore said. “On one hand as an artist, I try to enjoy the making of art, while at the same time I don’t shy away from difficult issues. It’s a way to get people to look at it.”
Never to be overshadowed, Belmore’s art has continued to make bold commentary against the ignorance and past injustices of Canadian authority.
Her performance piece, Victorious, serves as an example of her willingness to continue to speak against the Canadian government for its shortcomings in its relations with First Nation peoples.
A few days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the treatment of Aboriginal people who were sent to residential schools, Belmore created an “Indian Queen,” a reference to the monarch of that era, Queen Victoria, out of recycled newspaper and honey.
“I was thinking about when we watched the apology through the media, and the opposition leader Stephane Dion said, ‘this should have never happened’,” Belmore recollected in her lecture.
“Imagine how things would have changed. I wanted to make this piece where I transformed nothing, newspaper, masking tape, a chair, a woman, and make her an Aboriginal queen for this country.”
Through her art, and especially through her performance pieces (Vigil, Making Always War, and Victorious), she has been a leading voice in challenging the status quo, tackling cultural identity, and championing her people’s issues.
Her view on the role of Aboriginal art is one of facilitation. Belmore believes that art is a medium that can bridge the gap between Aboriginal culture and how Canadian society perceives it. Her art deals with the past and puts the past into the context of the present.
“Canadians are gradually becoming more aware of the issues Aboriginal people face, it’s in the media,” Belmore said.
“It’s important for artists to articulate their particular view on the time they live in. As First Nation peoples, we have suffered a lot because of the Church and the government. Because we have suffered so much loss, as artists, we can imagine how it could have been and how we would like it to be.”
Still, Belmore is more than willing to confront Canadian society’s perception of Aboriginal culture. According to Belmore, people still carry negative stereotypes about her people: “I see it everyday in Winnipeg, in my face.”
Aboriginal art, within the larger context of politics, is only one element in creating a stronger voice for First Nation peoples. But conflicts such as the Oka Crisis, Burnt Church Crisis, Ipperwash Crisis, and the ongoing Grand River land dispute have created mixed views on the stance Canada should take regarding Aboriginal relations.
The heart of the matter lies in equal treatment. “It’s essential people protest and draw attention to whatever conditions they are having to deal with,” Belmore said.
“A community should be healthy. When stuff isn’t done people need to go out and make noise to get things done. That’s where an artist can help communities, to help those situations.”
For her own art, the power of its message is rooted in catharsis. Her performances create a safe space for her. It’s personal and at the core of her practice.
“It restores my belief in the power of art to effect some sort of change,” Belmore declared.
— with files from The Globe and Mail