A black-haired, denim-clad woman stands with her back to the viewer and arms out to her sides in Rebecca Belmore’s sister (2010), a single photograph split between three backlit transparencies that was included in this exhibition, titled “KWE,” at University of Toronto’s Barnicke Gallery. She initially appears empowered, but then doubt creeps in: is she being searched by police? In a booklet accompanying the show, curator Wanda Nanibush notes that the woman is Aboriginal and that the ambiguity of the image is typical of Belmore’s works, whose subjects seem forever caught between “self-possession and dispossession.”
The 54-year-old Belmore, who represented Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale, is best known for her interventions at sites where colonial power structures still operate. Co-organized by Toronto’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, “KWE” consisted of 12 works—comprising sculpture, photography, performance and video—made between 1991 and 2013. “Kwe” is the Anishinaabe term for “woman” and carries broader connotations. While both Belmore and Nanibush are Anishinaabe-kwe, the title also refers to Aboriginal cosmologies where nature is no less powerful for being feminized. In one of the early works on view, from 1991, Belmore politicized these cosmologies in response to Quebec’s Oka Crisis of 1990, in which a Mohawk community clashed with the government over plans to develop sacred land. Titled Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, the work is a 7-foot-long electric megaphone that Belmore brought around the country, installing it outdoors, mainly in First Nations communities. The megaphone provided her and others with an opportunity to communicate their hopes and grievances to the natural landscape, the “mother” of the title.
Belmore draws attention to those whose very existence is criminalized. In Vigil (2002), a live performance not represented in the exhibition, she carried out a series of ritualistic actions on the streets of Vancouver’s drug-ridden Downtown Eastside, memorializing the mostly Aboriginal sex workers who have gone missing or were murdered. X (2010), which appeared in the show through video documentation, also commemorated a disappearance. To the mournful accompaniment of a trumpet, Belmore used a roller to paint enormous X’s with milk on a grocery store’s wall in Peterborough, Ontario—a futile pursuit, since an assistant was there to obliterate each one with a hose. X marked the absence of the name belonging to an indigenous person whose 2,000-year-old remains were unearthed during construction of the store’s parking lot.
An X also appears in Perimeter (2013), a video beautifully shot by filmmaker Darlene Naponse. In Sudbury, Ontario, Belmore was denied access to the local nickel mine. She trespassed on the property anyway, anonymizing herself with a silver-and-red X on the back of the fluorescent yellow jacket she wore (the video never shows her face). In one indelible shot, Belmore holds a long piece of red tape, letting it stream in the wind as she walks alongside an industrial pipe carrying contaminated runoff to a nearby body of water. In this work, the X becomes a multivalent symbol, recalling more than just the high-visibility gear worn by workers who perform largely unnoticed maintenance tasks. It also refers to historical land treaties between European settlers and First Nations groups, whose representatives often signed with an X without being fully told the agreements’ terms. Even as it marks a loss, the symbol suggests potential empowerment: nothing less than the right to visibility is at stake.