Shelley Niro - M: Stories of Women

© Shelly Niro, Beginnings from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Andrew Smith Gallery is pleased to announce the exhibition of Shelley Niro's stunning and powerful series M: Stories of Women (2011) as part of The Grand Opening 2021: 9 Small Exhibitions (September 18 - December 5, 2021) at the new adobe house gallery at 330 S. Convent Ave., Tucson, AZ, 85701.

© Shelly Niro, Ancestors from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Internationally acclaimed artist, Shelley Niro is a member of the Turtle Clan of the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk) Nation. Born in Niagara Falls, New York, and currently residing in Ontario, she grew up near Brantford on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory. For her MFA 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. Niro is known internationally for her feature length film Kissed by Lightening (2009), performance pieces, painting, beadwork, and particularly for her extensive photographic body of work. Since the late 1980s, she has prolifically produced and exhibited ambitious work at a high level, nationally and internationally, and she has long been a significant creative presence in Toronto.

© Shelly Niro, Bagging It from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

In Niro’s most notable photographic work, she deploys the photograph as a platform to represent herself and female family members cast in contemporary positions to challenge the stereotypes and clichés of Native American women. Niro understands the traumatic and anger-filled aspects of continued colonization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. However, that victimry is not the subject of her images. Instead, Niro sees survivors or even thrivers, capturing in her work a vein of irony and campy Indigenous humor read by her community as "ours." She orchestrates people to perform for the camera in the process of constructing her photographs. This allows her to play with societal expectations and denaturalize stereotypes, often serving to enlarge our view of Indigenous women, giving them a platform to be whoever they are in their messy complicated traumatized lives in a way that shows them as strong, beautiful, talented, and creative. The way we become through performing is made visible as a space of resistance in Niro's work.

© Shelly Niro, Legacy from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

This wild, accepting and creative matrilineal vision that consistently represents counter-narratives to stereotypical views of Indigenous women perpetuated for mass consumption since the turn of the nineteenth century, is evident in Niro's seriesM: Stories of Women (2011). The series is composed of ten digital photomontage portraits of women facing the camera to confront the burdens mainstream society has covertly granted them: Beginnings, Ancestors,Bagging It, Legacy, Blanket, Routes, Many Horizons, Land of Opportunity, Memories of Flight, and Finding Her Helpers. Niro assertively presents the resilience each woman holds in parallel with the trauma each has experienced and holds inside. Building on Sky Woman's narrative, the Haudenosaunee Creation story, the series directly confronts present-day burdens perpetuated and consumed daily. Each portrait is determined to empower a woman's position and bring attention to their inherent advocacy.

© Shelly Niro, Blanket from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Niro explains: A certain Haudenosaunee story takes place before modern times. It predates mass communication, telephones or printing presses. The narrative is passed down through oral history, from one generation to another. The Haudenosaunee story of Skywoman has extended into pop culture. The set-up is this: a young, beautiful pregnant woman lives in the night sky constellation known as Pleiades. Sky people do not know illness. They live in a glowing shining world. Something happens in that world where people start to suffer from diseases which lead to their deaths. They don't know what to do. They’ve never seen this before.

Skywoman’s dying husband asks her to get him a drink of water from the forbidden Tree of Life. She doesn’t want to see him suffer anymore and makes the trip to the tree, hoping it will heal him.

As she arrives, a big gust of wind blows the tree over, leaving a hole in the ground where it once stood. The wind knocks her into the hole, making her try to grab the roots. In an attempt to grab onto something, she grabs strawberry and tobacco plants instead. She begins her long, lonely journey through darkness.

In an act of love, Skywoman puts herself in danger, going against rules society has set up to protect its community. In that one unselfish act she loses her way and, ultimately, everything. She floats through darkness for what seems like an endless amount of time. She doesn’t know where she is going or how long she will be in this state. Her fear is eventually overcome by curiosity. She begins to look forward to a new life with her unborn child, in a new and distant land.

© Shelly Niro, Routes from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Monster is a story of women who live in this world. The depiction of Native women in Canada is deplorable. Often stories are bleak and serve only one purpose, to perpetuate Native women as losers and non-producers, often taking away from the common good of this society. Newspapers occasionally make statements about the taxpayers’ losses as they are the ones paying for services going toward the livelihood of Native peoples, notably women and their children.

The attention and then the lack of attention for the Missing 500, the attention and then the lack of attention for the lack of good drinking water on Indian reservations, the attention and then the lack of attention for glue-sniffing children on Indian reservations, north and south, the attention and then the lack of attention of suicide of Native youth on any Indian reservation propels any and all to register surprise and then denial. These stories are pulled and spread out for daily digestion depending on the political sway and often used as a divergent from the real issue.

With this exhibition of images, my goal is to create another kind of image of Native North American women. Our legacy starts in the Skyworld. Through an act of accident, we are now inhabiting a world where we faced those everyday challenges and have found ways to thrive and survive.

© Shelly Niro, Many Horizons from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Occasionally I imagine how the story of Skywonan was first delivered. Was it a bedtime story? Was it at a biennial? A gathering of storytellers? May the best story win? This wasn’t an ordinary story about wolves in a forest or getting lost in a canoe. This was as a story that took place in the stars above. The ability to eye the infinite firmament above enriches the human soul indefinitely.

I give thanks to my ancestors everyday. I connect with them through my own imagination. The forward thinking of invention and the inclusion of the universe makes being a part of this world doable and positive. Everyone has their own story.

© Shelly Niro, Land of Opportunity from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Using photomontage, rather than the labor-intensive techniques characteristic of her previous work, Niro can digitally insert symbolic references and cultural aesthetics. This has allowed her to react quickly, shifting the process of building a monumental response to the projected images destructively circulated in mainstream media, which Niro refers to as "visual aggression," contributing to the violence enacted against Indigenous women and their communities.

© Shelly Niro, Memory of Flight from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

Five photographs in the M series - Beginnings, Ancestors, Legacy, Memories of Flight, and Finding Her Helpers - draw significantly upon Sky Woman's disposition. Niro recognizes that living evidence enhances the story and she casts her daughter Naoga as the embodiment of Sky Woman's continual being for the series' foundation. Bagging It, Blanket, Routes and Many Horizons hold each subject/woman steadfastly to the forefront as they confront the lingering issues and trauma instigated by colonial subjugation and contemporary concern. Each woman in the series is an artist in her own right: Lori Blondeau, Jacquie Carpenter, Jackie Traverse and Niro herself. Each encapsulates Niro's designation of the letter "M," which stands for mother, maternal, matriarchy and monster.

© Shelly Niro, Finding Her Helpers from the series M: Stories of Women, 2011,
14 x 9.25" archival pigment print

The M series raises national issues and known historical consequences supported by the now-named legislative genocidal policies that have not since gone away or been reconciled. The accountability to the past is overwhelming for many and has initiated a call to action, inviting allies to join the frontline alongside the women Niro portrays. The remaining work in the series, Land of Opportunity, speaks to a hopeful post-colonial future. Here, Niro introduces her niece, Paula Anderson, as a representative of the exuberant youth who will carry forth the inherent duties respectful of Sky Woman's legacy to ensure balance and harmony are achieved and maintained.

Credit: Nanibush, Wanda. "The Photography of Shelley Niro." In Scotiabank Photography Award: Shelley Niro, 9-11. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2018. Rice, Ryan. "Taiakoia'tenhátie / Freefall: The Photography of Shelly Niro." In Scotiabank Photography Award: Shelley Niro, 79-90. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2018.

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