Native Arts | Shelly Niro

By Dottie Indyke

At her studio in Brantford, Ontario, Shelley Niro is creating a series of war clubs for an exhibit called Weapons of the Heart. Made mostly of fabric, the clubs aren’t likely to cause any bodily harm. Each is paired with an “L” word—listen, learn, love, lust, laugh—which the artist tenders as a prayer for denizens of the troubled planet Earth and for the seven future generations that many Native people believe will be affected by present-day actions.

Cushy sculptures that embody hard realities are typical of Niro’s work, which tends to soften the blow of sharp social commentary with a jolt of humor. The style has become second nature for the modest, soft-spoken 50-year-old who grew up on the Six Nations reserve on the north shores of Lake Erie in Canada.

Her 1991 photo-graphic series, Mohawks in Beehives, secured her place as one of Canada’s most prominent contemporary artists. In it, Niro, a Mohawk and member of the Iroquois League comprising the Mohawk and four other tribes, depicts her laughing mother sitting under a hair dryer in the triptych THE IRoQUOIS IS A HIGHLY DEVELOPED MATRIARCHAL SOCIETY. The picture is both an ode to the mundane details of life and a send-up of the pat analysis of her people by white anthropologists. Subsequent photos, in which she and her family members theatrically dress and pose, also show the artist’s perspective on Native women, cultural stereotypes, and the interplay between personal and political concerns. Niro is known for her innovative use of the photographic medium, including hand-tinting, matte boards, and diptychs and triptychs in multi-panel series.

In Niro’s case, still photographs led to moving images: In 1998, she wrote and directed the award-winning film Honey Moccasin, which uses elements of melodrama, performance art, and mystery to explore Native identity. She is currently producing Suite Indian, a series of six short experimental videos with a segment entitled “Mars Thunder Child,” in which a young woman who believes she is running her life just right becomes aware, through a portentous dream and a visit from Sitting Bull, that what she does with her success is what counts.

Niro was born in Niagara Falls, NY, in 1954, into a prolifically artistic community. Her identity as a member of the great Iroquois nation was part of the ongoing dialogue in her family, and everyone around her, it seemed, was an artist. Her parents made beadwork that they sold at powwows, and her neighbors carved rattles and drums. “I wanted to be an artist,” she recalls, “but I held off doing any kind of creation. I wanted it to be my voice; I didn’t want it to be a fashion statement.”

As an undergrad at Cambrian College, she indulged a different love by studying cello and classical music. Then she put her career aside to get married and raise a family. Art was relegated to her private hours. “I questioned whether I could say something that meant something,” she recalls. “Finally I got to an age where I thought, ‘If I don’t get over it, I can’t call myself an artist.’”

So, at 30, she began again, enrolling at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto to concentrate on the basics of drawing, painting, and sculpture. It was an act of faith, since she wasn’t sure anyone would take her seriously. Her teachers’ encouragement both surprised and inspired her.
In 1985 she got a big break when she was invited to join a group of 10 Native women in an exhibit that would tour Canada. The most thrilling part for her was the eye-opening exposure to the other artists’ creative ideas—to concepts that would stimulate her own artistic evolution.

Recently Niro mounted a show of landscape photographs in homage to the Grand River, the backbone of her native land—pictures that profile, in intimate detail, the life of the river, from the hydro-power plant on its banks to the fish and turtles that are returning to its waters. She is also beading a pair of stiletto boots rescued from a thrift shop with the words “Niagara Falls.” And for an outdoor exhibit, she crafted benches pitched at a 45-degree angle so viewers can recline and commune with warrior women she created.
A global presence these days, Niro has jetted to Venice to see her film installation at the Bienale and compiled a group of photos of personal and geographic journeys for a two-woman show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Niro is a busy woman.

Now 20 years into her career, she notes the ups and downs that come with the frenetic pace that characterizes the professional life she has made for herself. “The good side is I’ll never run out of things to do,” she laughs. “But the bad side is I’ll probably never finish all the pieces that I’ve started.” o

Shelley Niro’s work can be seen at the Buffalo Biennial, Buffalo, NY; C.N. Gorman Museum, Davis, CA; Museum of Civilization, Quebec; Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa, Quebec; and Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN.

Featured in “Native Arts” March 2005