10 May 2018




On Wednesday May 9th, 2018, Scotiabank Photography Award winner (2017) Shelley Niro spoke at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC). This talk was part of CONTACT programming, the festival that is currently taking over Toronto galleries with photography for the month of May. The following is a special edition She’s My Muse, providing Musings’ readers with highlights from Niro’s SOLD OUT artist talk.

Shelley Niro, The Rebel, 1982, Ryerson Image Centre.
Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew.
To Niro, photography is sculpture, and much more than taking a picture. Working until she is satisfied, Niro pushes how far she can take one image. This has led to an impressive body of work that combines photography, film, beadwork, and painting. Niro is known for exploring Indigenous identity and challenging colonial stereotypes, often focusing on Indigenous women. The directness and humour that is prevalent in Niro's art shines in her speaking. Niro captivated a full auditorium with ease.

Niro began the talk with establishing her practice as treading into unknown territory with art. She then narrated the works included in the current exhibition at the RIC. Niro’s demeanor was calm and matter-of-fact, her honest descriptions of her art bringing the audience to laugher one minute and shocked silence the next.

Rebel (1982) is a photograph of Niro's mother printed in black & white, then later painted to add colour. The title Rebel reflects the name of the car in the photograph, as well as Niro’s mother being “a bit of a rebel.” Niro’s playful honestly continued with her explanation of the 1992 series This Land is Mime Land. She described entering a local costume store and putting on "whatever fit" to create the triptychs made up of a contemporary image, a photograph of a family member, and “me being me.” 

Shelley Niro, This Land Is Mime Land: Five Hundred Year Itch (detail), 1992, Ryerson Image Centre.
Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew.
An interesting topic of discussion was Niro’s use of technology throughout her career. Niro described printing and cutting photographs by hand to surround them with beadwork in the 1990s. She was asked about the difficulty in transitioning to Photoshop, answering that navigating the digital world is increasingly easy. However, Niro expressed her continued attachment to analog film and black & white photographs.

Amid the laughs there were also somber moments. Indigenous realities crashed over the audience when Niro recalled the outbreak of the H1N1 virus. Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario asked the government for medical assistance, only to receive body bags (represented in the digital print Stories of Women: Bagging It, 2012). These transitions did not feel forced, but a natural reality of her work and experiences.

Niro explained that Indigenous stories are not always well known. Niro’s art demonstrates a balance between politics and humour, as she strives to bring laughter to Iroquois artwork and explore representations of Iroquois as a “highly developed matriarchal society.”  She described missing and murdered Indigenous women as ever-present. Niro photographs her mother, sisters, nieces, and children, to represent what real Indigenous women look like outside of colonial stereotypes—thus creating positive images of Native women. 

The simplicity of Niro’s explanations was refreshing. She admitted that some work is self-explanatory, and she cannot come up with an essay for every piece. Niro’s assurance that you do not always have to fully understand a work of art to experience visual satisfaction was comforting and genuine.

Lastly, it was revealed during the talk that Niro’s next big project is a feature film! Other key takeaways include: untwisted DNA is a “damn good design” for Wampum belts and “make what you want to make, then put it out there.”

Want to read more about the survey exhibition of Shelley Niro currently at the RIC? Check out Kesang’s review from earlier this week! Shelley Niro (curated by GaĆ«lle Morel) is on display April 27th - August 5th 2018.

Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew.

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