One last student review of Rebecca Belmore | What is Said and What is Done, from Emily Antler.
“Rebecca Belmore: What is Said and What is Done” is presented at Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada exhibition “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art”. Working as a professional artist since 1987, Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe Rebecca Belmore’s multi-disciplinary work addresses notions of history, place and identity through multiple mediums including photography, video, sculpture and performance. Belmore, in partnership with curator Heather Anderson, selected a small number of previously shown works to create an exhibition that is both stark and relevant. Her first solo show in Ottawa, the exhibition embraces the spirit of Sakahàn’s international indigenous model by focusing, as much of her work does, on the historical relationships between the colonizer and the colonized.
Although there are no new works in the exhibition, the content is as fresh and relevant as those presented across town at the National Gallery. The few works selected (there are only six series presented in the show) mirror the minimalist aesthetic of Belmore’s works. While both the works and the exhibition appear simple in form and construction, there are multiple layers of meaning rooted in each work selected here by the artist and curator.
Upon entering the gallery the visitors first encounter the installation, March 5, 1819 (2008). The video re-enacts the story of Demasduit and her husband Nonosabasut, a Beothuk couple, being chased through the snowy winter woods by English settlers. Standing helplessly between two screens of the looping video, the viewer watches as Nonosabasut is shot and killed. Beginning again immediately, the trauma loops leaving the viewer unable to intercede despite their knowledge of what is about to occur. As Anderson explained, Belmore wanted this work to be the center-point of the exhibition and as a satellite to the “Sakahàn” exhibition it becomes clear why: the trauma of Demasuit’s story intensified by the looping of the video signifies how reoccurring these acts of violence were to colonized peoples around the world. This is one story of many. By purposefully clothing the actors in contemporary clothes, Belmore creates a narrative as contemporary as it is historical. Her storytelling brings history into the present moment.
It is unfortunate that the miniature portrait of Demasduit, later renamed Mary March upon her capture by the English Settlers, was not available for inclusion of the CUAG show. Currently on tour as part of the Library and Archives exhibition of miniatures, the digital representation currently substituted lacks the potential for a personal connection to Demasuit and her plight. Digital representations can leave a void in an exhibition of this size where every work matters. The exclusion of digital images might have strengthened the exhibition even at the expense of a missed didactic opportunity.
The physical center-point of the exhibition is the work, The Great Water, (2002), a black overturned canoe draped with several feet of black tarp spilling out into the gallery space like a body of water as seen by the light of night. The name refers to the body of water that divides North America from Europe, the colonized from their colonizers. The canoe, an indigenous invention turned Canadian icon, acts as a broad allegory for the monumental capsizing that occurred with colonization and how the repercussions extend to modern day life.
Other works in the exhibition include Shanawdithit, the Last of the Beothuk (2001), which is inspired by the story of Shanawdithit, the niece of Demasduit and showcased as an allegory for the decontextualization of indigenous peoples that often occurs in museum exhibits and Untitled 1, 2, 3 (2004), a large triptych of photographs of a woman in multiple uncomfortable positions wrapped in white fabric.
As Anderson states in the introduction panel to the show, “Belmore’s eloquent works assert the finality of the past.” They do not offer either resolution or judgment, but in being shown open many doors to discussion and the forgiveness of sins inflicted by colonizers on the indigenous populations of the world much in the same vein as many of the artworks in “Sakahàn”. “Rebecca Belmore: What is Said and What is Done” is on view at CUAG until September 1st, 2012. A catalogue to accompany the exhibition is currently in the works and will be published and released by CUAG in 2014.