Shelley Niro celebrates women and land, and looks at loss and suppressed Indigenous history

Art | Gregory Beatty | Jan. 13, 2022

In Her Lifetime 6. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shelley Niro: A Good, Long Look
Dunlop Art Gallery
Opens: Sherwood Jan. 15 / Central Jan. 22

It’s not quite a retrospective (that’s still to come) but this exhibition nonetheless offers, as the title promises, a “good long look” at 69-year-old Mohawk artist Shelley Niro’s four-decade career.

The Lucie Lederhendler-curated the show comes to Regina from Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon. To host it, the Dunlop is using both its Central and Sherwood Village galleries. Sherwood opens Jan. 15, while Central’s part of the show opens Jan. 22.

Shelley Niro is a member of the Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk from Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. She’s a past winner of the Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award (2017) and Scotiabank Photography Award (2018), and has exhibited widely in central Canada and internationally — including solo shows in Greenland and Norway, and group exhibits in Venice, Palm Springs and Russia.

Oh yeah, and in 2023, the Art Gallery of Hamilton is mounting a career retrospective. Niro has certainly come a long way from her late-1970s start as a self-taught artist struggling to learn to draw.

“When I think back to when I was young and trying to figure out what kind of art I wanted to do, I was comparing myself to artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci,” Niro recalled in a recent phone interview. “Their drawings were just so beautiful, and of course you try and you never get to that standard.

“As I got older, I stopped holding those works as high as I did and started looking at my own environment and seeing what had been produced, and appreciating that more.”

Niro studied at Ontario College of Art and is a self-described “dabbler” in an impressive array of media from photography and performance to drawing, painting and beadwork. She’s also written and directed four feature films.*

One constant for Niro, though, has been her interest in issues of representation, identity and stereotype. Reinforced by the Mohawk matrilineal tradition where family and property pass through the woman (as opposed to the man in patriarchy), Niro has long put women front and centre in her critiques.

“I think it’s really important to make the matriarchs an important part of the work,” she says.

“It’s like a cliché after a while to say we’re a highly developed matriarchal society,” Niro adds. “If we want to say that, we have to believe that, and we have to practice that. It means having respect for women and treating them like an equal part of the community. Otherwise, it’s just a line in a history book that doesn’t mean anything.”

Niro is inspired by history and tradition but very much grounds her work in contemporary times. Pop culture references abound, and she doesn’t shy away from using humour — although always with an ironic or satirical edge that points to a deeper meaning.

“I like to mix things up and create situations or narratives where people think, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen that before’, so when they look at a work, they end up going in a different direction,” says Niro.

One favourite for me is The 500 Year Itch (1992), a hand-coloured gelatin print where Niro mocks the quincentennial celebration going on that year for Columbus’s 1492 “discovery” of the “New World” by mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s famous Seven Year Itch subway grate pose.

In another photo series, Toys Aren’t Us (2017), Niro takes toy “warriors” made of moulded brown plastic and inserts them into incongruous settings including a beach outing with three 1920s-era bathing beauties.

The figures are right out of central casting (Indian brave, c. 1950), so are a perfect foil for Niro’s critique of a longstanding Hollywood stereotype. Yet she’s also spoken admirably of their detail and craftsmanship, so that comes across too.

Even when Niro wades into the tacky excesses and perverse pleasures of pop culture, she’s on firm historical and cultural ground. That comes courtesy of her birthplace: Niagara Falls.

For over two centuries, Niagara Falls has been an international tourist attraction and famed honeymoon spot. Heck, Marilyn Monroe even made a movie there (the noir thriller Niagara in 1953). But for the Mohawk, says Niro, Niagara Falls is a site of deep spiritual significance.

“I like to think about Niagara Falls as ‘Once Upon a Time’,” she says. “We saw this place as having a great amount of spirituality. Now, it’s like the Vegas of southwestern Ontario — it’s all neons and loudspeakers and crowded with people.

“I understand the importance of all that,” she says. “But people have a choice. They can look at Niagara Falls and see what’s really important about it.”

Land & Memory

Land and its relationship to Indigenous sovereignty and economic well-being is another issue Niro has long been interested in. But for her, the interest extends beyond the here and now.

“I think it’s also about memory,” she says. “You have to remember the land you’re on and why you’re here, and how you got there, and all the other contributing factors that influenced history along the way.”

For Indigenous people, some of those memories are painful. In the case of the Mohawk, they originally lived in New York State. Under Chief Joseph Brant (for whom Brantford is named), they fought with the British in the American Revolutionary War and had to move to southern Ontario when their lands were ceded by the British to the Americans.

“Even though the effects were negative, I still think that can be positive, as it’s telling the history of why we’re a diasporic people,” says Niro, whose ongoing photo series Battlefields of My Ancestors explores that history.

“When I was growing up it wasn’t really talked about, where this happened, and that happened, and now we’re here,” she says. “I don’t know if they’re doing that in school now. I just think all of history could be discussed so much more.”

Once again, while Battlefields is grounded in the past, the photos have contemporary resonance. All around the world, Indigenous people are struggling to protect their land from profit-hungry corporations and governments eager to develop and exploit the resources.

In North America in particular, hard-right conservatives are working just as eagerly to squelch further discussion and acknowledgement of evils done during colonization, and the intergenerational impact on those who were colonized and enslaved.

It’s being done south of the border with the “critical race theory” boogeyman, and in Canada by Jason Kenney’s UCP government which is trying to ram through an egregious Eurocentric school curriculum in Alberta that “whitewashes” Canada’s colonial history.

It’s a trend Niro laments.

“There’s a lot of dysfunction in native communities, and some people are perhaps wondering — I know I am — why that is?” she says. “When you learn about the history you start to realize why. It’s not a pretty story, but I’m just happy to keep working away so I can discover more.”

* The RPL Theatre will screen three of Niro’s films: Honey Moccasin (Jan. 27, 7 p.m.), Robert’s Paintings (Jan. 29, 3 p.m.) and The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (Jan. 29, 7 p.m.)  pd