When you enter the Art Gallery of Ontario’s current exhibition Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental, you’ll become aware of a disturbing background soundtrack to your looking. It’s the voice of the artist, but this is no gentle murmuring. Rather it’s the raw, torn-from-the-gut screaming incantation of women’s names—Angela, Catherine, Elaine, and 57 others—all of them drawn from the 2010 Vancouver Police task force report into missing and murdered women on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.
Moving deeper into the exhibition, you will confront the source of the commotion: Belmore’s 2002 video installation titled The Named and the Unnamed, an artefact of her 2002 street performance Vigil. Displaying the artist’s typical intensity, economy, and urgency, the video shows Belmore scouring the sidewalk of a Vancouver back alley on her hands and knees, a bucket of soapy water at her side, then standing to call out the names of her lost sisters (her cries punctuated by her biting down on a series of flower stems and stripping them bare with her teeth in a violent, swashbuckling gesture) and finally nailing her red dress to various objects and surfaces (a wooden telephone pole, a hoarding) and ripping herself free, leaving traces of the torn fabric behind.
The piece is classic Belmore, a kind of anti-monument to those who die unnoticed in a still egregiously racist society, and it sets the tone for all that follows, chronologically, in this truly magisterial show. Appearing in the wake of Canada’s sesquicentennial year, in which much lip service was paid to Indigenous rights (with a multitude of Indigenous art exhibitions in museums across the country chiming in) but with few if any structural or societal changes actually achieved, Belmore’s exhibition is a bracing reprimand to complacency.
The exhibition is charged with another message too: Indigenous rights are human rights. Belmore speaks from her perspective as an Anishinaabe woman, but the lessons of her art are universal, and searingly of our times.
Belmore’s sculpture Biinjiya’iing Onji (From Inside), currently installed in the AGO’s Galleria Italia, is a perfect case in point. The life-sized replica of a pup tent carved in marble was shown last summer at the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Athens, Greece, where it was situated on a hilltop close to the Acropolis. There, in the context of the escalating refugee crisis, it was heralded by the international press as a monument to those forced to flee their homelands, and also to those, like the Anishinaabe people, who have been dispossessed of their sovereignty on their own territories. Pointedly, Belmore’s marble tent is based on one of standard commercial manufacture (of the nylon and metal strut variety). It is of this moment, making no formal reference to traditional Indigenous nomadic shelters. Acquired this year by the National Gallery of Canada, the work speaks to a contemporary world in crisis, setting the historic and current condition of Indigenous people in Canada within a global context, its commentary no less stinging here on Belmore’s native soil.
There are many other startling encounters here, like the 2008 lightbox work titled Fringe, which features the draped naked body of Belmore’s sister and frequent collaborator, Florene, her back bearing a long and brutal scar embellished with beadwork (thankfully the result of Photoshop wizardry). The piece arose from Belmore reading a news story from 1980 concerning a white surgeon in Manitoba who had added similar embellishment to the surgical scar of a Cree woman—in ostensible homage to the woman’s beading skills. (She only became aware of the intervention when the hospital staff started laughing as they changed the dressing; the beads were on her back, and thus not visible to her.) One man’s homage is another woman’s violation. Fringe speaks to how racial stereotyping lands on those who are caricatured while suggesting the inscription of colonial injury on the bodies of Indigenous women, who bear more than their share of the load of human suffering. More generally, it underscores that the dignity of women’s bodies, when those bodies are Indigenous, is as imperilled in our so-called First World as it is elsewhere around the globe.
The exhibition brings forward several important new works, the most recent being Tower, a fifteen-foot structure of stacked shopping carts caked in dried red clay. Belmore has cited as the ignition point for this work an abandoned shopping cart that she was using in her studio to store clay, as well as a massive open pit in her eastside Vancouver neighbourhood, which was being excavated for a new condo development.
For me, though, the work evokes urban refuse, with the abandoned shopping cart the signifier of both consumerism and homelessness, as well as the stepped vertical monuments of American minimalist Donald Judd. But Belmore reimagines Judd’s cerebral stairways to heaven in an urban vernacular, rooting us in the messy and fecund earth from which we come. Tower speaks to the ways in which place has become real estate, and our relationship to home commodified. In this equation, human history and family ties are effaced by the impersonal exigencies of capital. This is an urban totem pole in search of ancestors, a fitting reproof for our soulless times.
Some works here seem to speak to specifically Canadian traumas. At Pelican Falls, Belmore’s 2017 sculptural installation with video, includes a seething current of blue denim fabric, which swirls and eddies across the floor as if trapped between two architectural promontories. At its centre, the flowing shapes resolve startlingly into the form of a small boy’s denim jacket—the standard uniform for young children incarcerated in the Canadian residential schools (as a nearby suite of photographs makes clear). Taken as a whole, the piece evokes the lives of some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, caught up in the forces of colonialism and swept toward the precipice of oblivion by powers beyond their control.
The exhibition also offers the chance to reconnect with landmark works from Belmore’s earlier career, among them Fountain, the work she presented as Canada’s official representative at the Venice Biennale in 2005. A film projection onto a sheet of falling water, it is a highly dramatic work in which Belmore struggles waist-deep in a body of water before rising to her feet to meet our gaze. (The work was shot on a beach in Vancouver, where she used to live before moving to Montreal and now Toronto.) We see Belmore thrashing back and forth waist-deep, standing and then falling as she wrestles with a metal bucket, filling and spilling its heavy contents of water, before staggering to her feet and lumbering toward our camera with her heavy load. Lifting the bucket high, she then hurls its contents at the lens, drenching our view with what suddenly appears to be blood. The red liquid sheets off the lens, revealing her stoic face behind.
When I first saw Fountain in Venice I found its tone somewhat histrionic, its sense of extremity overreaching. Seeing it now, thirteen years later, I realize it was simply far, far ahead of its time, and I had been unable to fully absorb its impact. The sense of urgent crisis that it conveys is now deeply understood in the minds of many Canadians, who grow impatient for change. This work’s metaphors are open ended—that is part of its challenge—but I see it as a comment on the role of Indigenous women as environmental warriors and water keepers, but also as keepers of community and collective well-being, as social activists who lean in, time and again, to fight for what’s right. Water, after all, is the quintessential life-giving elixir, as is a woman’s blood and sweat. There is no way to overstate this.
Meeting Fountain again at the AGO, I found myself thinking that this is a work of art that Canada is still growing into, sometimes awkwardly, as those suppressed histories become better known and more widely acknowledged in Indigenous and settler culture alike. We are getting at least part of the way there, but that is in no small part due to works of art like this, that carry us beyond our comfort zones into fresh territories of knowing, works that throw injustice in our face. As Belmore says: “The world will be a different place in twenty years, and we have no idea what that looks like. I think that’s why we have conversations, that’s why we have to listen, that’s why we make art.”
Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental was curated by the AGO’s curator of Indigenous art, Wanda Nanibush. It remains on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until October 21, 2018. The Remai Modern gallery, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, will host the show from February 1 to May 5, 2019.