Rebecca Belmore has a prominent place in Canadian Art. So much so that her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), “Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental,” was one of the first exhibitions featured in the newly restructured department of Indigenous and Canadian Art. The exhibition, curated by fellow Anishinaabe Wanda Nanibush, is the culmination of more than 30 years of Belmore’s work giving voice to the voiceless.
Her self-reflective art simultaneously seeks to represent the First Nations community and object to its stereotypes. Her decidedly beautiful pieces, all based on performance, seek to call out traditional gender roles, the commoditization of what it means to be Indigenous, and the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women.
The Root of Belmore’s Performance Art
Rebecca Belmore was born in 1960 in Upsala Ontario and is a member of the Lac Seul First Nation community. She spent summers with her maternal grandparents, who spoke only Ojibwa, while her mother insisted she learn only English.
Belmore’s older brothers both attended residential schools, where the decision of what language to speak was made harshly for them. Belmore herself was sent to board with a non-Indigenous family, and her reflection on the residential school system later in life is conveyed in Apparition (2013). She kneels submissively with tape over her mouth, displaying her anger and sorrow for the loss of language. She eventually dropped out of high school to work odd jobs, but eventually went back for her final year. Here she was convinced by a teacher to submit a drawing to a local competition, where she won first prize.
When asked why she wanted to become an artist, she responded “because I didn’t know what else to do,” but that it was in the pursuit of freedom. She attended the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) from 1984 to 1987 and began performing nationally and internationally in the late 1980s.
In 1993 Belmore moved from Toronto back to Sioux Lookout area to begin “an intense search to gather knowledge of the land, the language and the history of the Anishinaabe people that she felt she’d missed.”
Alter Ego and Playing Indian
As Laura Beard puts it in her essay Playing Indian in the Works of Rebecca Belmore, Marilyn Dumont, and Ray Young Bear, “All of Belmore’s work asserts the rights of Native women to define their own bodies, their own situations, and their own political identities.” That is perhaps why Belmore developed her alter ego, High-Tech Teepee Trauma Mama.
This caricature of Indigenous stereotypes was created to make her audience uncomfortable. It was so common for non-Indigenous to dress Indian and commercialize the image, and Belmore highlighted that, mocked it, and took some of that control back.
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Belmore’s most striking works have taken on the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves. Untitled (a blanket for Sarah) (1994) expresses grief for the homeless woman who froze to death in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Belmore has taken red and gold pine needles and threaded them meticulously through wire mesh, creating twelve rough blankets.
She lent her voice to the Lubicon Cree protest during the Calgary Olympics with her work Artifact #671B (1988). The Shell Oil Company was a corporate sponsor of an exhibition called The Spirit Sings, a collection of Indigenous historical artifacts that did not have a single Indigenous curator. To rub salt in the wound, Shell was involved in securing drilling rights on lands that the Lubicon Cree had to claim to. Belmore sat contained in a museum case in -18 °C weather outside of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Belmore’s performance attracted international attention to the human rights violations against the Lubicon Cree.
In a more recent piece, Fringe (2008), a sleeping woman has a long scar down her back, cut diagonally almost sensually from shoulder to lower back. The cut looks to be bleeding, but in reality, traditional beads are strung together, cascading around the woman. Belmore shows that the traditional stereotypes of Indigenous women will always be with them, as a scar on their back. There have been atrocities inflicted upon that female body, but there is some optimism that the scar is at least healing.
Rebecca Belmore is well recognized for her works both nationally and internationally. In 2004 she became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and was given the prestigious VIVA Award of $12,000 for “outstanding achievement and commitment.”
In 2005, Belmore became the first Indigenous woman to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale (now the Art Biennale). Her entry Fountain features a video of her wading through a polluted waterway, splashing a bucket of blood at the screen, staring at the audience. It grabs the viewer’s attention, and forces them to look at her, and listen. That same year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by her Alma Mater OCAD University.
Belmore received the Canadian Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013. In 2016 she was the recipient of the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which came with a $50,000 cash prize, plus a guaranteed solo exhibition at the AGO. This would be realized with Facing the Monumental, which featured over 20 sculptures and performance-based works.
Perhaps the best example of Belmore’s messaging comes across in her self-portrait True Grit: A Souvenir. She has depicted herself on a sewn pillow with short hair, wearing cowboy boots and a football jersey, juxtaposed on a background of floral fabrics. With it, she makes commentary and criticism on the “traditional” roles of male and female. The souvenir title refers to the commoditization of Indigenous artwork. She depicts herself cross-armed and defiant, standing with the courage of her convictions, both representing and challenging the narrative.