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History, Herstory

History, Herstory

I’ve been finding myself in Grimsby often, of late. Last month, I attended the first of the Art House Cafe Lecture Series of 2018: Miklos Legrady’s talk Marcel Duchamp, who proved that art ISN’T anything you can get away with (the text is online, easily found, and I recommend it). But even better, the GPAG had just opened Indian Summer, by Shelley Niro. Her practice is both prolific in quantity and stretches back over three decades.

The works in the Grimsby Public Art Gallery (GPAG) incorporate different media, and Summer is installed in a manner that groups works formally (size or process), but also conceptually. The impression left is that Niro employs the medium (painting, or photography) that best serves her ideas.

For example: Battlefields of My Ancestors comprises nine light boxes, but the scenes depicted are as united by content as installation. The two side walls are dominated by paintings, large and vibrantly colourful; on the left are works titled Wishing a River, Travelling Through and Continuing the Journey, depicting a female character in a larger implied story, sometimes “realistic” and sometimes more magical realism. Opposite this sequence are four large works that are iconic and more focused on a singular subject to each canvas (often floral): a favourite is My Aching Breaking Beading Heart. The heart of the title is as large as a person.

Bodies of work in the GPAG function as separate “chapters” of a larger aesthetic: many works have a cinematic quality, and this is unsurprising as Niro has worked in film, but also has a powerful sense of beauty. I’m reminded of her solo show Taste of Heaven at TPG in 1999; colour photographs whose vibrant hues and tones on rich dark backgrounds had a contrast that mesmerized the viewer. Over a decade later I watched Kissed By Lightning, one of her many films, at the Capitol Theater in #YXE.

Returning to Summer: one wall is comprised of six images, tall and slim in rich blacks and subtle greys of collaged landscapes that, like much of Niro’s lens-based art, reference “public” scenes like Niagara Falls but possess a deeper resonance within Niro’s personal history (as with Ancestors). These are quiet, contemplative scenes and offer a subtle rejoinder to the digital works on the far side of the gallery. Sleeping Warrior Dreams of Pastures and Power, Warriors Dream of Life in the Sky or Sleeping Warrior Dreams of Fighting No More are similar in format and composition, but also offer distinct symbolism and sensibilities that allow the pieces to act as a progression, a tale told through digital photography, or perhaps as a testament to the pluralism of identity of Indigenous peoples.

This exhibition was originally curated by Bryce Kanbara at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, ON. The curator’s words: “Indian Summer invites the viewer on an unexpected journey… Niro calls attention to the absurdity inherent in the conflicting images that persevere in shaping societal assumptions about Indigenous culture. Her compositional choices reflect her calm presence and create empowering images and a positive framework for conversation about past and present oppression and future elimination of barriers. She offers the viewer an opportunity to take a new look at what shapes our understanding of Indigenous people.”

Indian Summer runs until March 11.

Shelley Niro is based in Brantford: her diverse practice includes beadwork, painting, photography and film and she’s a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk. Niro’s many awards include being the first recipient of the Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award (2012), and the Scotiabank Photography Award and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2017).

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