Carleton University Art Gallery CUAG

Rebecca Belmore | What Is Said and What Is Done

Curated by Heather Anderson, presented in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada's Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art

18 June – 01 September 2013

The Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore is a storyteller, deploying performance, sculpture, photography, and video to create, as Jessica Bradley has written, a “language of images and actions that insist on the difference between what is said and what is done.” She personalizes history, in particular the history of contact between European settler and Indigenous populations.

Two of Rebecca Belmore’s works address the tragic history of contact in the early 19th century between English settlers and the Beothuk of Newfoundland. There are varying recorded accounts of the capture of the Beothuk woman Demasduit and the murder of her husband Nonosabasut at Red Indian Lake. Belmore’s video March 5, 1819 (2008) powerfully conjures the emotional trauma of this event, bringing it into the present day by situating two contemporary individuals in the narrative, and placing the viewer amidst the projected images, as both witness and perpetrator. 

In 1823, English furriers captured Demasduit’s niece, Shanawdithit, who lived in St. John’s until her death in 1829 and became legendary as the last of the Beothuk. In Shanawdithit, the Last of the Beothuk (2001), Belmore commemoratively evokes the woman’s presence (and absence) with haunting stone sculptures of her feet and hands, rounded as if worn by water, sensuously connecting her to the land from which she was taken. These objects also suggest traces of ‘primitive’ culture, the artifact-like qualities echoing the anthropological interest Shanawdithit endured.

The Great Water (2002) offers a broader allegory for the sweeping, traumatic changes born from Europeans’ journeys across the ocean separating them from the Americas. We are witness to a monumental capsizing, a catastrophic loss of balance; the void of the empty hull alluding to tragedy and unfathomable loss. Just as the swath of white fabric that binds a woman’s body in Untitled 1, 2, 3 (2004) can be variously read as cocooning or oppressive, and her positions as restful or untenable, The Great Water communicates a flux of meaning. Belmore deftly manipulates and activates materials in visceral ways that elicit trauma and loss, but also course with currents of resistance and are starkly beautiful, engendering a sense of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the uncanny.

The exhibition’s title What Is Said and What Is Done has multiple implications. A balanced phrase pivoting on “and,” it calls for a comparison between words and deeds. It also recalls “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven,” from the Lord’s Prayer. In Belmore’s (Untitled) come in cielo così in terra photographs, the actors in March 5, 1819 adopt the identities of a present-day Adam and Eve, standing defiantly in a Downtown Eastside Vancouver parking lot, and also in water, their images reflected against the sky. The juxtaposed Ojibwe-Salteaux New Testament points subtly to another tragic history: the forced placement of Aboriginal children in church-run residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak, and thus lost, their languages. 

What Is Said and What Is Done asserts the finality of what is past: the great water has been crossed, there has been much turbulence. Eloquent works such as Belmore’s, however, can raise our awareness and encourage us to redirect our thinking, words, and actions in the present day. Rebecca Belmore is among the many people who are working to balance the vessel and chart a new course.

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