Just before crossing the Honoré-Mercier bridge towards Montreal, we see a billboard displaying the image of a young woman. In 2006, 24-year-old Tiffany Morrison disappeared after crossing the bridge to a bar in the borough of LaSalle, on the north side of the St. Lawrence River. Four years later, what was left of his body was found on the south side of the river, near Honoré Mercier in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, a First Nations reserve.
Morrison was originally from Kahnawake, Mohawk and a mother of one. Her unsolved murder is one of hundreds that have since been codified as an epidemic of missing and murdered Native women.
The inextricability of gender, geography, and indigenity—and the ongoing violence against women, the Earth, and Indigenous peoples—fuels the practice of contemporary artist Rebecca Belmore. Now visible at Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art“Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental” presents an overview of her 30-year career, spanning photography, video, sculpture and installation. All are united by Belmore’s commitment to her own body as a performative instrument of resistance. .
The entrance to the exhibition acts as a warning: the sound of moving water is disconcertingly strong. Depending on the time, tearing and screaming noises or James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” may emanate from unseen sources. The exhibit’s introductory text is in French, English, and Belmore’s native language, Anishinaabemowin.
Like the sound, the performances that define Belmore are fleeting; only one, “Vigil”, is fully documented in the show, presented in installation form as “The Named and the Nameless”. Belmore staged this street performance in 2002 in a Vancouver neighborhood where the disappearance of more than 60 women was under investigation.
In the 38-minute video loop, projected against a constellation of eerie orange light bulbs, Belmore performs a ritual of recognition and mourning. She calls out each of the women’s names, which are written in Sharpie on her body, dragging a thorny rose into her mouth after each. She then puts on a red dress and proceeds to nail it to nearby objects: telephone poles, fences. Getting trapped in the cityscape and then freeing himself, Belmore eventually finds himself in only his white underwear and tank top. Scraps of blood-red cloth remain pinned to the city. Then she joins the assembled audience, leaning against her parked van as her speakers blast Brown’s creed that a man is “nothing, nothing without a wife or girl.”
The fiercely acerbic nature of “Vigil” and its constituent elements – body as woman and self, mouth as megaphone, blood, water, nails, fiber and tissue, entrapment and freedom, suture and the tear – resonate throughout the exhibition that follows. The female body remains at the center of the theme even as Belmore oscillates between acts of refusal and absence (as in the works where she appears with her back turned, face covered or eyes closed) and acts of frontal confrontation (as in the video installations “Fountain” and “March 5, 1819”).
Belmore’s large ‘Fringe’ photographic print evokes an almost clichéd act of refusal: the irritated lover pushing his partner away. Associated writings in the exhibition’s resource library draw parallels between this image and the historical European figure of the odalisque. Paintings of the latter tradition typically feature the woman reclining, nude or semi-nude with her face visible. Here, a horizontal woman — Belmore? – turns completely away from the viewer’s gaze, revealing a massive gash from shoulder to hip. Tiny red seed beads hang like streams from the seam of the wound.
Bodies continue to turn away: the ‘sister’ photographic triptych shows a denim-clad figure seen from the back, arms raised to the sides as if about to be searched or crucified, or about to fly away. In the “Artist (#2)” and “X Mark” digital prints, a character wearing the reflective X of industrial work uniforms faces away from the camera toward the vast backgrounds of a construction site with an orange tarpaulin and a misty, empty landscape, respectively.
In “State of Grace”, a photograph of a young native woman reclining peacefully amidst white sheets is printed on what appear to be Venetian blinds. His eyes are closed, his state ambiguous. Is she sleeping or is she dead? At peace or just gone? The image of the woman, in strips, floats gently.
A paradox emerges in Belmore’s use of disappearance. The indigenous and female body has “disappeared” due to systematic historical, physical and cultural erasure. But this same body is also not fully present or visible, thus denying ownership. The two-screen video installation “March 5, 1819” speaks directly to the historic murder of Indigenous women and Indigenous lineages. The two-minute parallel screenings present a fragmented contemporary recreation of the colonialist abduction of Indigenous woman Demasduit and the murder of her husband, Nonosabasut.
In the “Mixed Blessing” sculpture, a figure crouches, bowing her head and surrounded by flowing black hair. The person is wearing a hoodie with cross text reading “Fuckin Indian” and “Fuckin Artist”. Viewers can circle the figure, engage in the suspenseful game of uncovering his face – which, it turns out, is completely hidden from view by thicker black hair and a single red line of “blood” from seed beads.
If blood is essential to Belmore’s work, so is water. The video work “Fountain” is projected directly onto a trickling wall of water; in it, Belmore appears on a rocky, dramatic coastline, wading and struggling through the ocean waves. She finds her footing and emerges onto the shore, carrying a bucket of blood which she throws directly at the camera, washing the watery screen red.
Three sculptures from the 2017 site-specific installation “Wave Sound” riff on one of Belmore’s early works. She shaped the surfaces of these massive aluminum cones after the geology of three Canadian coastal regions. Each was previously installed in its respective location, an invitation to passers-by to listen to the ocean.
Prior to this relatively recent act of listening, however, Belmore performed a speaking act. Not represented in the exhibition, his participative work “Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother” is a giant megaphone made of natural materials. Belmore made the work in 1991 in response to the 1990 Oka Crisis, during which members of the Mohawk tribe engaged in a standoff with the Canadian government for 78 days to prevent their territory from being transformed in the golf course. One of the bridges blocked by natives on the Kanesatake, Kahnawake and Akwesasne reservations was the Honoré Mercier Bridge — where Tiffany Morrison’s body was found in 2010.
Belmore’s deep magic is the fusion of her specific body of flesh and blood with the abstraction of the native female body. You begin to assume that every body is his body, even if it is not, or might not be. And you reflexively try to imagine the performances from which certain objects come, whether or not there was an associated performance. Belmore sets and transcends the boundaries of his identity with cutting edge anger and intensity. She draws attention to the dizzying interdependence of life and earth – for better and for much worse.