Shelley Niro
Hiawatha's Belt
Other Visions

Exhibition Dates:
July 11- August 31, 2008

Andrew Smith Gallery presents an exhibit of photographs by Shelley Niro titled Hiawatha's Belt and Other Visions, opening Friday, July 11, 2008 with a reception for the artist from 5-7 p.m. Shelley Niro is a celebrated teacher, filmmaker, painter, photographer and writer who has exhibited her work in Canada and the U.S. In conjunction with her many visual arts awards, she was a fellow at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute (1997), and was acclaimed by the New York State Historical Association for her exhibit, "Where We Stand, Contemporary Haudenosaunee Artists."

Niro works in a photo montage process, combining historic and contemporary imagery to create seamless composite photographic prints. Her innovative, informative and at times, humorous works have a broad range of interests including the myths, legends, history and diaspora of the Mohawk Nation, feminism, politics, globalization, colonialism, satire, and the experience of the cultural "other."

The diverse and thought provoking photographs in Hiawatha's Belt and Other Visions explore Niro's ongoing interest in Iroquois history, ancestors, mythic flying women, and the Iraq War. The exhibit continues through August 31, 2008.

Negative Date: 2001 ca.

In 2001, while in residency at the University of Windsor, Niro created a lithograph called "Haudenashioni Senses" that alludes to the rich history of the Iroquois Confederacy. In her large photo-litho a blue wampum belt floats on a warm orange background. Wampum belts, made from polished shells shaped into cylindrical beads, were sacred objects used in solemnizing agreements, among other things. Within the belt are five geometric figures connected to each other by a narrow band. The figure in the middle has been described as a heart or a sacred tree under 
hich the Iroquois met in council. Within each of these shapes Niro has inserted photographs of Native people interacting with each other.

"Hiawatha's Belt," as this emblem is called, stands for the confederacy, or Iroquois League that was formed in 1570 when the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes agreed to form a cohesive alliance called "Haudenosaunee," or "People Building a Long House." In the early 1700s, a sixth tribe from North Carolina, the Tuscaroras, joined the 
riginal five tribes to complete the Iroquois Confederacy.

Niro's lithograph includes the hand written words: EMPOWERMENT, TRUST, COMPASSION, PEACE, and RIGHTEOUSNESS, which express the unity and strength of the Iroquois League. "Hiawatha's Belt," also known as a Native American flag, has represented the Iroquois people in both Canada and the United States for 400 years. It is still a powerful reminder of the ideals set forth by the ancient Iroquois that contemporary people continue to aspire to.

Negative Date: 1992
Silver Gelatin Print

In this triptych Niro, depicted in the left panel photograph, wears a platinum blond wing and Marilyn Monroe gown as she enjoys the breeze from a fan aimed up her dress. There is a delightful absurdity in this image of a politically savvy Mohawk woman switching roles with a sensationally famous Anglo sex symbol from a generation ago. The center panel contains a photograph of Niro's mother as a girl, posing coyly for the camera. The right panel depicts a cropped haired, barefoot Niro "as is," without guile or deception.

From the series "Mohawks and Beehives"
Negative Date: 1991
Hand Colored Silver Gelatin Print

This whimsical triptych is part of Niro's series "Mohawks and Beehives." Bordered with handmade white dots forming ornamental patterns, three vividly hand colored photographs depict Niro's sisters on a park bench being playful and silly.

Negative Date: 1993
10 Silver Gelatin Prints

Consisting of ten black and white silver gelatin prints, the "Flying Woman Series" is loosely based on the Iroquois creation myth of Sky Woman who helped create the earth, its plants and animals, and the precarious balance between the forces of creation and destruction, and good and evil. Niro portrays Sky Woman in modern garb wearing cut off shorts and a t-shirt. She is a long-haired, limber acrobat who soars and swoops over a kaleidoscope of photographic images and decorative motifs, which Niro created by laboriously hand cutting and gluing down imagery. In this whimsical series Niro informs us that Sky Woman is still a very active principal in the affairs and imaginations of contemporary Native people.

From the series "Ghosts, Girls, and Grandmas"
Negative Date: 2001
Digitized Photo Ink Jet Print

A man with a sensitive, androgynous face gazes inwardly, while behind his head a ghostly face hovers in the black background. The black and white image is bordered by a thick frame of beadwork with a rung-like pattern suggestive of a ladder. According to Niro, ladders symbolically connect the earth to the sky, acting as a stairway between worlds. Here Niro is exploring what it means to be a mature person empowered by the stories of one's race, and helped by the invisible presence of the ancestors.

Negative Date: 2006
7 Digitized Photo Ink Jet Prints

Niro's "La Pieta" series is an allegory on the effects of war -- not only the disastrous war in Iraq, but on the horrific emotional price of all wars. It was influenced by Michelangelo's sculptural Pieta of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, one of the most powerful symbols of bottomless sadness and loss. The background of each image is red, resembling a cloth soaked in blood. In each print Niro has inserted a different image within a wampum frame embellished with black and white crosses, suggestive perhaps, of those endless rows of grave markers in military cemeteries. The images include a young man's chest, a tree trunk, a wintry landscape, a verdant valley seen from afar, hydro towers, and sky-blue water.

Niro has written:

"When I started to think about this series of images I wanted it to be an abstract slew of pictures, much like visual poetry, I wanted these images to blend together and form not a literal meaning but give an emotional sensation.

I wondered how I could make the statement representative of war, motherhood, the destruction of the earth and the destruction of armies trained to move as a unit and ultimately die or succeed.

I began by thinking of poppies and how they have become the symbol of past wars. We immediately know what their place is. I was going to put a representation of what a poppy might look like in wampum beads. I was also thinking about what Tom Porter had said as he explained a wampum belt he was holding at a gathering many years ago. The belt he held was held up and down, not sideways. There was something that looked like a cross. He said anthropologists say this design was influenced by the church. He said this symbol is confused with the Christian cross. But he went on to explain it is a traditional symbol showing the spirit world and the earth. There was a line representing the earth and a shorter line continuing showing the sky world and the direction your spirit leaves once you pass on.

Remembering that story I started to make a wampum belt representing war and keeping in mind a poppy. I wanted this belt to also have a balance of black and white. Good and bad. I’m not educated in the philosophy of war so I didn’t want to comment on it, I do know people are affected by it everywhere and everyday. I wanted the red cloth behind the belt to be obvious about representing bloodshed. Together with the beads and the red broadcloth, I wanted to contain the photos, to be seen as an Iroquois comment of how we are aware of the outside world and we are affected by the activity of outside forces."

Negative Date: 2006
Digitized Photo Ink Jet Print

In the first print of the "La Pieta" series Niro placed a photograph of intense blue water ruffled by gentle waves within narrow vertical frame of wampum beads. The water appears deep and endless as if far out to sea, or the middle of a great lake. Niro says of this image, "The first and the seventh images are of water. I use this to symbolize the importance of an element essential for all living things. Without it we would die. The earth uses it to cleanse and heal itself after periods of chaos and turmoil. Water carries us for nine months in our mother’s womb and makes our journey into this world easier. Water promises a life of abundance, growth, safety and hope for the future."

Negative Date 2001
Digitized Photo Ink Jet Print

Set within the rectangular frame of the wampum belt is a vast landscape of forested mountains and a winding river. There is an unspoiled, dreamlike beauty to the scene, as if this distant land is out of another time. According to Niro, "This infinite view represents what was lost in the Diaspora of Iroquois People when they were forced to leave the Mohawk Valley after the American Revolution. The natural beauty never to be returned to, takes my breath away. Again the landscape represents mother, a place always producing, always there, and a place that had to be defended and eventually lost. The maternal homeland still waits for the return of her people."

Negative Date: 2004
Digitized Photo Ink Jet Print

Niro says of this photograph, "This image is a close-up of the resources, a single tree. The detail allows the viewer to see what would otherwise be ignored. We can examine each bark chunk, each shadow and crease. The knots act as invitations for us to listen and comment on the physicality of each tree as an individual. They have character and personality and can be cut down at the will of any man."

Negative Date: 2006
Digitized Photo Ink Jet Print

This time the wampum belt contains a close up photograph of a young man's bare torso with nipples and navel exposed, as if emphasizing the body's defenselessness and vulnerability. "This series of images," writes Niro, "are to represent the resources that are lost and damaged in times of war. The grand landscape is torn apart. Over time the earth will heal itself. The loss of young life leaves a definite scar on the world, no matter whose life, whose side of the battle that was fought. Mother’s will cry forever."

Shelley Niro is a member of the Mohawk Nation, Iroquois Confederacy, Turtle Clan, and Six Nations Reserve. 

or her Masters of Fine Art degree at the University of Western Ontario, Niro wrote a thesis about the rediscovery and readdressing of basic myths, legends and history of the Iroquois people, research that resulted in an intensive study of the Diaspora of the Mohawk Nation. 

Liz Kay

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