Niro and far

Artist Shelley Niro deconstructs modern iconography andidentity with This Land is Mime Land. Sean Flinn checks it out.

Shelley Niro sounds wiped. Calling from her home on the Mohawk reservation Six Nations, near Brantford, Ontario, it’s not surprising; she just attended the busy four-day imagineNATIVE media arts and film festival in Toronto. There she screened her new 57-minute film of connected shorts, Suite: Indian.

Niro, a member of the Turtle Clan, only had a few days’ rest before coming to Halifax to give a presentation about her series of more than a dozen photographic works, This Land is Mime Land, October 27 at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery. The show originates from the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa and runs until December 11.

“I still like the work. It was fun to do then so I see it in that light now,” Niro says of the 1992 series. “Back then a lot of native artists were critiquing how native people were being depicted in media—you know, the drunk on the street, or the person at home not working and on welfare.”

In each work, Niro grouped three images and set them in mattes with patterned drill-holes to resemble beadwork. They show, Niro says, aboriginal people as “more dimensional” individuals than the flattening stereotypes mentioned above.

Left to right, the images shift in tone, from often hilarious satire of dominant cultural icons to the artist’s plainly realistic self-portrait.

On the left of each piece in the series, Niro appears in costume. She has hand-painted these photos after printing them to further “animate” her role-playing. She dresses up to send up Eurocentric idols and icons, including Elvis, Santa, Star Trek, a judge, the Statue of Liberty, Marilyn Monroe, a Madonna-esque pop singer circa 1985 and a mime.

By assuming the role of a mime, for example, Niro points to aboriginal peoples’ struggle for a voice and, perhaps, her own struggle as an aboriginal woman. Putting on the mime’s make-up, Niro reminds you how native people are often dismissed as nuisances—on the street and in political arenas—like, well, an annoying mime.

The artist uses the middle image to explore how “memory…personal history” shapes identity, tinting each with sepia tone to support the idea. Niro drops in photos of immediate family members—her daughter Stella at 10 years old in “Santa is a Dene”—and those from generations past.

On the right hand of every work, Niro presents a simple, expressionless self-portrait in black and white. In some of these images, Niro turns her back to the camera or stands at an angle, almost on profile. Barefoot, wearing a simple denim shirt and jeans, the artist shows her true, every day self.

In “500 Year Itch,” for example, you see how Niro makes all three images in a single piece work together. She skewers the enduring impact of Hollywood glamour on our definition of beauty by appearing as Marilyn Monroe doing her sexy skirt-twirling in the movie Seven Year Itch. But Niro keeps her glasses on and an overturned portable fan subs for the movie’s subway grate.

Women are always being judged based on their appearance; imagine if you then had the weight of cultural identity to deal with on top of that.

The middle image in “500 Year Itch” attests to that. A decades-old photo of Niro’s mother appears behind the sepia surface. An attractive young woman, she awkwardly sways, or sashays, like a movie star or model. The position of her arms gives it away; so too the curls in her hair.

This image from Niro’s “personal history” tempers the hilarity of the staged image. It also sets you up to contemplate the self-portrait, looking for evidence of Niro’s own struggle against the beauty stereotype.

Throughout her career, Niro says she’s created “responsibly for the young viewers.” In particular, she wants to reach young native women to inspire them to think, “I could do something like that.” Something like making provocative art, or just being yourself.

Shelley Niro presents This Land is Mime Land, October 27 at MSVU Art Gallery, 7:30pm. till December 11.

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