The planet moves and becomes liquid, pouring down through the metal grids of the stacked shopping carts, to pool in a pile of red clay at the base. Landslides hold us in thrall as they brush past, turning our objective reality into liquid nightmares. We cannot stop Earth’s movements, just as we cannot stop climate change or extinction. We are irrelevant to the vast power of nature.

Rebecca Belmore’s retrospective Facing the Monumental 1 feels like a cultural landslide to me, sweeping histories aside and acknowledging the presence of Indigenous narratives within the neocolonial present. The spirits within objects and the land are made manifest through her performances, videos, and sculptures. Tower (2018) is a soaring, totemic pile of metal shopping carts with “liquid” red clay “falling” as if by gravi- tational pull, defying time and anchoring the metaphor in ridicule for our age of venerated consumerism. The Tower is a spirit being or “personage.”

The arrangement of this retrospective is a little disconcerting because several iconic artworks are scattered throughout the AGO—placed before elevators on the ground level and in café areas. I think that this exhibition strategy is misguided and, in this case, caused me to miss some of the works. Thus I have already drifted past three conical aluminum structures called Waves Sound (2017) that Belmore created specifically for sites at Banff National Park, Alberta; Pukaskwa National Park, Ontario; and Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. The rocks from each terrain were moulded and incorporated into the sculpture. Belmore has recorded the sounds heard through each funnel, and you can listen on the museum’s website2. These are beautiful and poetic works that evoke the nature we profess to adore but desecrate constantly.

How do we learn to appreciate and nurture the histories that remain embedded and unseen within our common cultural narrative? How do Canadians acknowledge the hurt and betrayal of the residential system and treaties that were not honoured? Belmore, an Anishinaabe artist, has been politically and socially engaged since the 1980s, articulating global and local issues, from international refugees to Indigenous crises such as the murdered and missing women. She has given voice to historical events such as the geno- cidal Hudson’s Bay Company issuing smallpox- infected blankets3 and the massacre of Indigenous people by the U.S. Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek4. Her body of work has been recognized with her selection to represent Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale and her receiving the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013. More recently (2016) she received the Gershon Iskovitz Prize, which included a show at the AGO; Wanda Nanibush, AGO Curator of Indigenous Art, organized this brilliant exhibition.

Belmore uses the presence or absence of bodies in a shamanic way to channel emotions. Tarpaulin (2018) is a baked-clay quilt that suggests an absent person rising from the floor. It reminded me of Joseph Beuys’s Coyote performance (I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974), during which he is draped under a felt blanket and reaching toward the coyote with his cane. Another Belmore installation, Pelican Falls (2017), combines a video showing the back of a young boy im- mersed in water with a moving text by Florene Belmore, her sister, referencing loons calling to one another across the lake. “I am here. Where are you?” is a lament that echoes throughout this exhibition, calling us to recognize one another. A ream of denim cloth sprawls across the floor in water-like folds, with a residential school tunic rising up in the centre. Three photographs of lost children, perhaps from the residential school catastrophe, line the banks of the lake.

Belmore’s retrospective affirms her status as one of the most important Canadian artists working today and provides a lesson for artists trying to communicate socio-environmental issues such as Indigenous identity politics.

Belmore is known as a performance artist, and several rooms were dedicated to these performances. The most poignant was Vigil (from the Named and the Unnamed) (2002). Belmore is on a street corner in downtown East Vancouver, washing the concrete to “purify” it. She lights votive candles and shouts the names of missing Indigenous women written on her arms. Then she rips roses through her mouth, despite the thorns, stripping the leaves and flowers. She dons a red dress and nails it to telephone poles, ripping it off herself gradually until she is in her underwear. The projection screen is covered in small lights to echo the votive candles lit for the victims.

Fountain was the piece shown at the Venice Biennale in 2005. A falling sheet of water serves as the projection screen. Belmore is filmed immersed in water, which is symbolic for her of nature’s essence. A fire ignites spontaneously in some logs on the beach. The location is Iona Beach, which was a site for illegal logging, a nexus of global neocolonialism through the international airport, and an important Indigenous longhouse location. She struggles to carry a pail of water up to the viewers and throws it at them. The water turns to blood and drenches the screen as she cries out in a primordial howl of anguish. It is an incredibly powerful piece that articulates the frustration we all feel about the inadequacies of our society’s environmental and sociological empathy.

Blood on the Snow (2002) dominates the last—cold-hearted and snowy – room. An expanse of white cushioning stuffed with feathers covers the floor. A chair, also covered in the white quilting, sits alone in the middle of the expanse. “Blood” stains the top of the chair-back. A wall text by Black Elk recalls the U.S. Cavalry’s Wounded Knee Creek massacre, during which women, children, and the elderly were butchered and their bodies left to be covered in snow. This installation indicates our will to ignorance as the huge white quilt hides the hideous under a blanket of purity.

Tower (2018)
Clay and shopping carts, 457 cm tall
Art Gallery of Ontario © Rebecca Belmore

March 5, 1819 (2008) is a two-channel video that plays on opposite walls. Settlers abduct a Beothuk woman named Demasduit, in 1819. Her husband is shot from a snow-covered ridge as he tries to escape, and her newborn baby subse- quently dies. The settlers rename the woman Mary March. These events are tragically symbolic of the colonial past that is mired in so much guilt yet escapes our recollection. We try to understand the narrative, fractured by the two-channel strategy, following the imagined pursuit on one wall while being aware of discrete imagery, such as a circling eagle, on the other. Then it switches and we imagine the scene from another observer’s viewpoint. The experience is hauntingly beautiful.

Belmore’s retrospective affirms her status as one of the most important Canadian artists working today and provides a lesson for artists trying to communicate socio-environmental issues such as Indigenous identity politics. These works are both poetically beautiful and pertinent to our past and present. This is an excellent ex- hibition by an acclaimed artist who is articulating issues that really need to be aired. 

(1) Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental is curated by Wanda Nanibush, the first holder of the newly created position of Curator of Indigenous Art at the AGO. She is also Anishinaabe, with a history of community engagement, and she is committed to establishing Indigenous art within Canadian culture.

(2) Rebecca Belmore, Wave Sound. [Online]

(3) The main items traded by Europeans for beaver pelts were Hudson’s Bay Company blankets. It has been claimed that these blankets were deliberately infected with smallpox to eliminate the Indigenous population. General Jeffery Amherst suggested that smallpox be spread in a letter to one of his colonels, who responded that it could be carried by the blankets. The Hudson’s Bay Company denies involvement in biological warfare.

(4) The U.S. government was worried about rising resistance initiated by the Ghost Dance movement. On December 15, 1890, reservation police killed Chief Sitting Bull, thinking he was a Ghost Dancer. Then on December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry tried to capture some Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek. Shots were fired and a massacre ensued in which 150 (or, according to some sources, 300) Indians were killed, many of them women, children, and elderly. This ended the Ghost Dance movement.

Rebecca Belmore : Facing the Monumental
Curator: Wanda Nanibush
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
July 12—October 21, 2018