On a frigid day in Winnipeg last winter, Rebecca Belmore and I shared a public conversation during the opening weekend for the exhibition “Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years,” organized by Plug In ICA. We talked about Belmore’s practice in relation to cold and snow, and discussed the many blankets she has created.
For the exhibition, Belmore created a new work, The Blanket (2011), performed and filmed a month earlier. The work speaks metaphorically about the centuries of dispassionate and immutable abuse directed at Aboriginal peoples, who, dismissed to the sidelines of society, are “out in the cold.”
Lee-Ann Martin: The deliberate impregnation of the smallpox virus into government-issued blankets distributed to Aboriginal people in the 18th century represents one of the most horrific stratagems perpetrated against Aboriginal peoples. The many blankets that you have created reveal the tangled historical relationships associated with the blanket—violence and disease, economic authority, and warmth.
Rebecca Belmore: My continual return to the conceptual density that I seem to find in the rectangular form of a blanket probably has something to do with growing up watching our mother turn our worn clothes into warm blankets. I was impressed with how familiar articles of clothing could be transformed and given a new purpose yet still remain identifiable to us.
The Blanket is a work that reflects this process. My exhibition space at Plug In ICA was directly across the street from the Hudson’s Bay store. Given the short distance between these two sites, it seemed obvious that I should pick up on the thread of trade history.
Noam Gonick and I purchased a red four-point blanket from this historic department store. It occurred to me as I felt its luxurious, thick warmth that it could take on the persona of a character in my short video, one that seduces, consumes and tries to possess completely and destroy those it encounters. Today, this blanket is an object of beauty, a collector’s item that belongs to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s history. But for many Aboriginal people, I am sure it is still viewed as a trade item that once contained the gift of disease.
LAM: A diminutive dancer [the Winnipeg dance and performance artist Ming Hon] struggles with the weight of the blanket against the white of the cold winter snow. In an iconic moment, she lies seemingly frozen in the snow, recalling and recreating the horrific image of the Native American leader Big Foot slain in the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890. Big Foot himself was among the first killed in this massacre that resulted in the slaughter of 300 unarmed Sioux people—mostly women and children whose twisted, frozen corpses lay untouched under a blanket of snow for days before being thrown into a mass grave.
RB: A few years ago, I saw video documentation of a dance work by Floyd Favel, Snow before the Sun (2007), which recalled the photograph of Big Foot’s contorted and frozen corpse. I thought Favel’s use of simple gesture and movement with limited props gently unravelled a disturbing historic image. I decided to also interpret this photograph.
My response was to blanket the discarded and frozen body, to wrap this image and re-present it as a not-too-distant history. The Hudson’s Bay Company store opened in Winnipeg in 1881, nine years before this photograph was taken. Not much more than a hundred winters later, I am holding a newly acquired blanket and portraying it as a symbolic remnant that carries the memory of an unimaginable history.
LAM: In both performance and installation, your own body frequently becomes a site of the traumatized and objectified (Aboriginal) body. On January 12, 1988, you burst into the national arts consciousness with your performance Artifact 671B, where you sat immobile, as an artifact, in -22°C weather for two hours on the frozen ground outside the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
This performance eloquently expressed the collective anger of many Aboriginal people throughout Canada who condemned the organizers and sponsor of the exhibition “The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples,” organized by the Glenbow Museum in conjunction with the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. This exhibition included more than 500 historical objects borrowed from national and international ethnographic collections. In a widely publicized campaign to boycott loans to the exhibition, the Lubicon Cree Nation in northern Alberta wanted to draw attention to their then 50-year dispute with the Canadian government over their claim to land that was being drilled by Shell Canada, the leading corporate sponsor of the exhibition.
RB: The call issued by the Lubicon Cree Nation to encourage people to respond to the hypocrisy of this supposedly celebratory exhibition and its relationship to the Olympics screamed at me. Asking people to protest this exhibition in the presence of the Olympic flame was a brilliant idea. I chose the Thunder Bay Art Gallery as a site because it has a collection of First Nations and Inuit art. It made sense to exhibit myself outside such a place.
A handful of First Nations students joined me and stood holding a banner that read “Share the Shame” while hundreds of Thunder Bay citizens gathered in the presence of the flame at City Hall. This call to action was a significant moment for me. I could not ignore the reality that objects made by our ancestors were vastly more desirable to the world than dealing with our present-day existence.
LAM: Throughout your practice, you have worked with colleagues, friends and family—most frequently your sister, Florene—in video performances that document trauma and loss in the recent and distant past.
RB: Florene Belmore and Donald Morin were actors for my video installation titled March 5, 1819 (2008), curated by Glenn Alteen and exhibited at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the early morning on this day, a group of English settlers would arrive at Red Indian Lake with the intent of capturing a Beothuk. In the process of forcibly taking Demasduit (renamed Mary March), they would kill her husband, Nonosabasut, as he tried to free his wife. Years later, Demasduit’s niece, Shanawdithit, would draw maps and illustrate her account of what happened on the frozen lake that day.
My version of the incident at Red Indian Lake is a visceral rendering that focuses on imagining the trauma of the moment. I wanted to make room for visitors to consider Demasduit and Nonosabasut as individuals, as flesh and blood. My decision to clothe this historic couple in contemporary dress, reaching out for each other across two large opposing projections, was an attempt to see them as a woman and a man desperately trying to escape their unseen captors. By placing the viewer in the middle of this trauma, I was casting the gallery visitor in the physical role of witness and perpetrator.
LAM: With Osvaldo Yero, you created two works—The Indian Factory (2000) and Freeze (2006)—that addressed the horrific “starlight tours” carried out across Canada over the past 20 years. In particular, these performances brought attention to the fate of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild in Saskatoon, who in 1990 was taken outside of the city by police and was later found frozen to death, partially clothed and wearing only one shoe on a -28 °C night. Authorities turned a blind eye to the case of the frozen boy in the snow for 10 years, until three more Aboriginal men were found frozen to death within two weeks in late January and early February 2000.
RB: Two of the freezing deaths in 2000 happened near the Queen Elizabeth Power Station. Darrell Night, a survivor of one of these deadly police excursions, was also abandoned here. He pounded on the door of the power station and was able to get help. A few days later, he would tell his story and burst this racist practice wide open.
“The Indian Factory,” commissioned by Tribe and co-sponsored by AKA Gallery, was an exhibition that attempted to examine and display the thinly veiled hatred that was brutally exposed that winter. Our factory was a conceptual place: the Queen Elizabeth Power Station.
Using a variety of materials, we acted as factory workers, creating visual images through our actions. A feather repeatedly dipped in blood and blown by an industrial fan across a large raw canvas became a violent blizzard. I pounded nails into a large photograph of a buffalo rubbing stone taken at a nearby heritage park. This pounding of nails into a stone held sacred was a conceptual attempt to bring the thunder of buffalo hooves back to the open plain, like a futile call for a return to better times. We drenched men’s work shirts with plaster and left them to hang and harden beneath an image of Elizabeth II.
Each time we finished an action, we went to a washstand to cleanse our hands. We finished with Osvaldo carefully burying me under the heavy weight of wet clay and then washing his hands before exiting the room and leaving me behind. Looking back, the repeated act of washing our hands was a conceptual cleansing of the deadly violence that took place in the darkness out on the frozen land.
LAM: In 2004, the Saskatchewan provincial government released its report, saying that there is clear evidence that Saskatoon police held Stonechild in custody the night he was last seen alive. The accused police officers were subsequently fired. Did the release of this report affect your next work, Freeze, in 2006?
RB: I never read it. It was enough, hearing that the accused officers would not be held accountable by our legal system. Freeze was an attempt to address the absence of justice suffered by Neil Stonechild and his family. The site for this installation was a Queen Street West car wash at Toronto’s 2006 Nuit Blanche.
The letters of Stonechild’s surname were etched deep into separate blocks of ice that were bonded together by water, then left to slowly melt. According to the audience count, 7,000 visitors passed through our space. Their warm hands touched and caressed the ice-cold surface that held his name, their heat conceptually and physically easing the harsh edge of reality.
LAM: In 1994, you painstakingly “wove” A Blanket for Sarah from thousands of pine needles that were collected from the forest floor near Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario and transported to the Heard Museum in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. As a memorial to a homeless woman, you transformed the natural soft covering of pine needles that blankets the forest floor into a razor-sharp metaphor for the violence of life and death on the street.
RB: I was on my way to catch a plane when I heard that a woman’s body was found on a quiet street in our town. Her name was Sarah, and she died from exposure to sub-zero temperatures. I didn’t know her. That same day, I arrived in Phoenix to a temperature that was 50 degrees warmer than home. At the museum, I saw incredible works made by Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo weavers. The extreme contrast of travelling out of the freezing cold and into the heat of the desert compelled me to weave the experience of that day into a memorial for Sarah. This work would hang safely in the Heard Museum for one year; outside, pine needles were strewn on the ground in a plot a foot deep, and became dust in the desert sun.
LAM: blood on the snow (2002) evokes an image of the pristine indifference of a blanket of snow defiled by the blood of the dispossessed. This work again recalls the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 and the continuing violence still endured by Aboriginal people today. Specifically for this work, you address the grim disappearances of more than 60 women—many of them Aboriginal—from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver over several decades.
RB: In blood on the snow, a chair sits blanketed in the soft expanse of a white quilted cover that is slightly disturbed by a blood-coloured stain at the top of the chair’s back. I was seeking to make a visual silence, imagining the show that fell and gently covered the massacre at Wounded Knee. I made this sculpture the year the serial killer Robert Pickton was finally charged with murdering so many women. For me, it asks if it is finally possible to remove the blanket of snow and release the deafening silence.
Go to canadianart.ca/belmore to see additional works by Rebecca Belmore.