Internationally recognized for her work in photography and film, multidisciplinary artist Shelley Niro was born in Niagara Falls, New York and resides in Brantford, Ontario as a member of the Turtle Clan of the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk) Nation, part of the Six Nations Reserve. After graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design, she completed a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Western Ontario (1997). Her work reflects an interest in the importance of place, myth and self for today's Aboriginal peoples Niro's work was exhibited in the CMC exhibition "Reservation X" and Her Film Honey Moccasin became An acclaimed piece both nationally and internationally, winning Best Feature at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City 1998, along with Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Director. Niro was awarded the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art from Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she was included in the group exhibition, After the Storm (2001). Niro took place in the Venice Biennale in 2003, Divergences with Rebecca Belmore at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and Contemporary Voices with Jeff Thomas at Canada House, London. In 2005 she completed Suite: INDIAN , a series of six short films involving artists, actors, musicians and dancers. This summer she had a solo exhibition entitled Almost Fallen at Oboro in Montreal. www.oboro.net Niro agreed to answer a few questions about her recent work that was shown at Oboro:
Mini Interview Questions (answers to follow--she answers one question a week):
** In your video work Tree , you play with the stereotypical representation of a "stoic Indian" mourning the destruction of the environment as seen in the 70s "Keep America Beautiful" T.V. campaign, but you replace Iron Eyes Cody with an Aboriginal woman. Do you see any connection between the urban encroachment that the woman is lamenting in the video and the imposition of patriarchal structures on matriarchal Iroquoian culture?
Also in Tree , instead of completely deconstructing the stereotypical imagery of the 70s videos, you work with the female character in the video as a role model. Is it hard as an artist to work through the stereotype to create a role model? What types of audiences did you create this piece for? Do you hope that the audience identifies with the woman? Is moved to action?
TREE is a straight forward re-appropriation of the eco-friendly stereotype native presence that was accepted in the last two/three centuries. The social discourse surrounding indigenous stereotypes has made us aware of why we should discard and re-invent the indigenous presence, thus exhibiting personality and influence on the contemporary world.
Society as a whole took a lot for granted. Native spirituality, communion with nature, and the ability to survive any consequence made it okay for Native People to live off the land and not be encouraged to participate in the contemporary experience. Poverty, naivete,and social decay were the norm. Great strides have been made to correct the imbalances and today Native populations are expanding and thriving in self-awareness and cultural preservation.
Returning to the gaze of indigenous presence I re-looked at the Native stereotype from the past. This one centering on the inclusion of the spirit of America embodied in the old type that of wandering caregiver of the land, shows how Native People were perceived as living with nature and never harming her. Keep America Beautiful was generated by this image. Fast forward to 2006, what are the issues surrounding Native image and contemporary issues. The most pressing one is the fast and vast decay of the earth. We are constantly reminded of the destruction around us. Again lets return to the earlier stereotype. In these pressing times, we have to engage each other and use art as a form of communication and warning. The earth is dying. This time I am using a woman's image to transmit the message. In her own body language the spirit of the earth shows us her horror and her judgment. She looks tired and disgusted. We can only take her sighs as encouragement to change and stop taking the environment and its offerings for granted.
**It is said that Louis Riel once prophesized that after many years, it would be artists who would wake up the people. When looking at Surrender, Nothing, Always , the man looks almost savior or warrior-like with his tools/weapons being cultural ones (the rattle and paint brushes). Is this what you intended? Can you comment on how you see the role of the artist within his/her community?
** The press releases for the Oboro show say that your piece La Pieta is connected to the contemporary worldview of war. Can you expand on this? Is there any specific significance to the wampum designs you used around the borders?
**Your recent work, like the Grand View series and La pieta , seems to be moving away from the satirical humoristic work you did in the 90s toward more sublime expressions of nature. Is this an intentional move? If so, does it offer any new opportunities for your cultural/artistic expression?
**As part of our website, we are imagining a National Gallery for Aboriginal Art in Canada (like the NMAI) and surveying students and artists with these questions: What are your top two contemporary artists that you feel should be represented in such a gallery? If you could choose two pieces to be included in the collections, what would they be?
**Are you working on any new work or projects? If so, what directions are you going with your new work and what personal and cultural issues are most important to your current work?