Rebecca Belmore - Biography and Legacy
Canadian Performance and Installation Artist
Upsala, Ontario, Canada
Biography of Rebecca Belmore
Rebecca Belmore was born into a large Anishinaabe family (part of the Lac Seul First Nation) in Upsala, Ontario, Canada. She was raised in Sioux Lookout, and spent every summer until the age of 16 with her maternal grandparents in Northwestern Ontario, with whom she spoke only in the language of her ancestors, Ojibwa. She explains that her grandmother "resisted the English language" and refused to learn English, whereas Belmore's mother was committed to her speaking only English in order to be able to survive and thrive in "this new world". Belmore's two older brothers were both sent to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their Native language. During these summers, Belmore also learnt from her grandmother about harvesting/foraging food from the land, as well as trapping and fishing.
She was sent to a predominantly white high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she boarded with a non-Indigenous family. As has been the case for many Native youth, this experience caused Belmore to develop a sense of displacement and cultural loss. Due to the feeling of being ostracized, she dropped out, and worked a series of odd jobs before completing her secondary education some years later. While completing her final year, she became close with an art teacher who encouraged her to submit a drawing to a competition, for which she won first prize. Belmore says that she wanted to become an artist "Because I didn't know what else to do. I could have become a truck driver because I liked the road and the freedom of the road. I used to be a waitress in a truck stop. I think that art is freedom and truck driving is freedom."
Education and Early Training
From 1984 to 1987, Belmore attended the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), in Toronto. It was during her time at OCAD that she developed a bold alter-ego named High-Tech Teepee Trauma Mama (who discomforted audiences by enacting outrageously exaggerated Native stereotypes), and began carrying performative interventions in public spaces (such as Artifact 617B (1988) and Rising to the Occasion (1987-1991)). These interventions aimed to draw attention to the "dispossession of First Nations land and livelihood" as well as to the hypocrisy of oil companies and the "absurdity of Canada's ties with the British monarchy".
Richard William Hill writes in his column for Canadianart that the 1980s and early '90s represented a period defined by the struggles of the first large wave of art-school-trained Indigenous artists to make space for themselves in galleries, museums, and magazines. The best works of those artists - including Rebecca Belmore, and also James Luna, Jimmie Durham, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Edgar Heap of Birds, Edward Poitras, to name only a few - changed how we imagine ourselves and our place in the world. Hill goes as far to call this moment in art history, an "Indigenous Renaissance".
It is true that Belmore's ability to expose the hard, unvarnished truths of colonial power earned her international recognition throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1991, she traveled to Cuba to participate in the Fourth Havana Biennial. A video of her performance, Creation or Death: We will win (1991), along with other performances (typically low-tech film recordings rather than the ambitious installations of today) from this period formed a key part of the artist's recent major overview exhibition Facing the Monumental held at the MAC, Canada. Critics commenting on Belmore's early career noted that she honed the art of "speaking without language". It became clear early in her career that through the use of performance, Belmore directly confronts and engages her audience in dialogues regarding colonial violence and the erasure of identity. Art historian Claire Bishop has described this as the "unease and discomfort" that can in fact increase a participatory work's "artistic impact", impressing upon viewers that these issues continue to impact a great number of Canadians, even today.
In 2000, Belmore joined the Pari Nadimi Gallery in Toronto, which was her first commercial gallery. She also had a breakthrough exhibition in 2002 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver, and over the next few years produced some of her most influential works, including Wild (2001), The Great Water (2002), Vigil (2002), White Thread (2003), and Fountain (2005). The partnership with the Pari Nadimi Gallery lasted until 2006, when Belmore tried to cut ties with the gallery, requesting compensation for works sold as well as requesting the return of the remainder of her collection. The gallery claimed breach of contract and sued Belmore for $750,000. Not long after her separation from the Pari Nadimi Gallery, Belmore began working with curator Wanda Nanibush, and their personal and professional relationship has endured for over a decade.
Belmore was awarded an honorary PhD degree from OCAD in 2005, due to her success at the Venice Biennale earlier that same year. She was later awarded another honorary doctorate of Fine Arts (honoris causa) degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2019. She has also received the Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award in 2009, and the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013.
Beginning in 2001, Belmore lived for nearly twelve years in Vancouver, before moving with her husband and fellow collaborator, Cuban-born artist Osvaldo Yero Montero, to Winnipeg in the summer of 2012. Belmore explains that this move happened "mainly because Vancouver was becoming too expensive to survive as an artist on an artist's income". Then, in autumn of 2014, the couple moved again to Montreal, because "the winter conditions [in Winnipeg were] too extreme." However, Belmore has had to admit that the winters in Montreal aren't much more bearable. She stated in 2014 that "It's basically about us trying to find a better space ... to live together as two artists [...] we're still unsettled and we don't know where we want to end up. Perhaps Cuba. We've discussed [Cuba] for many, many years. But as one gets older and winter seems colder, it seems more attractive. Plus, Osvaldo's been here for 20 years and I think it's my turn to reciprocate and to allow him to spend some solid, quality time with his own people in his own language and culture."
The Legacy of Rebecca Belmore
Similar to James Luna, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña in the United States, Canadian Rebecca Belmore has contributed to the international contemporary art world by developing a performance vocabulary for the representation of a (distinctly female) First Nations identity in art. Julie Nagam (Chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America) asserts, "Belmore's body challenges the colonial gaze by establishing Indigenous people as a presence instead of an absence." Likewise, Indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson states that "Belmore carries herself into spaces in an unapologetic, foundational way [...] colonialism rips Indigenous peoples away from land, language, culture, family, away from our own knowledge system and away from the ability to feel at home in our own bodies - our dispossession is expansive. Belmore refuses this dispossession. She attaches herself to her body as home and carries herself into whatever space she is in, as if she belongs, as if she is supposed to be there. Because of course she is, we are. She creates and holds a decolonial presence that gifts me with the feeling and experience of freedom."
Belmore explains, "I take a moment through performance to create a space to acknowledge [that] what is going on is important." In this arena of performance speaking often of specifically female issues, Belmore joins a host of iconic women interested in similar themes. These include Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, and Mona Hatoum. All explore notions of belonging in contrast to foreignness and attempt to dissolve this unhelpful boundary, along with other meaningless barriers that only serve to create harm. Alongside such good company, Belmore's work continues to inspire younger generations of artists to always practice care and resilience even when confronted by prejudice and division.