Award-winning multidisciplinary artist Shelley Niro is a true multimedia artist, working across various media, including photography, filmmaking, painting, sculpting and beadwork. A member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Niro’s work is known for challenging stereotypes and clichés about Native communities, and Native women in particular. Her work has won several awards, including the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award. Her films It Starts with a Whisper, Honey Moccasin, Kissed By Lightning and her short The Shirt have all won awards at various film festivals, and the National Museum of American History named her a fellow in 1997. Here is part of her Winners’ Circle interview from a recent issue of The Edge.
What inspired you to get into the creative arts field?
I have wondered, how can you not go into the creative arts field? There are so many excellent artists around who inspire on a daily basis. Films, music, and visual art are always in our environment. I suppose I’m a product of that environment, even though my early environment was Indigenous Art. Here many people participated in making things, drums, rattles, beadwork, carving, and painting.
What was it like growing up on the Six Nations Reserve? How has that experience shaped you as an artist and as a woman?
Growing up on the Six Nations Reserve provided many opportunities to explore different materials and outputs. There were ample mentors in their own practice. At the time they weren’t considered to be teachers, but they had skills that they would share with anyone who was interested. These skills often were their livelihood, which was important and necessary. I am appreciative of their own determination to keep their traditional skills well and alive.
What was your path to becoming a working artist like? Did your family environment play a role?
My path to becoming an artist has been a long and winding road. Taking drawing classes, for example, always left me feeling inadequate. When will I ever draw like da Vinci? Never, it seems, but then you realize your perspective is different. I also started to appreciate my own motor skills and started to develop confidence in the skills I had developed over many, many years. The family environment has played an important role, as I had to take time to make the work and take equal time to be with my family. Again, I had to concentrate on both to be able to make it work out in the end.
What would you like people to understand about Native culture?
Native People are misrepresented in newspapers and films and are often seen as not contributing to the overall economic structure. We are often seen as sucking off funds from the taxpayer. Native people pay taxes too. We are given a role that keeps us stuck the position of being in need of social services. Often, we are using the items that have been itemized in treaties. The culture is layered and complicated. We can’t be captured in a headline.
Your art is heavily influenced by the history of your people. Do you think it’s important to look to the past to understand the future?
Yes, my work is influenced by history. I believe it’s important to look at what has been written and to see how that affects me personally. I take history as inspiration, as most often history has misrepresented my people. We are seen as monsters, killers, who take on war for pleasure. Until recently we have had limited exposure. As time goes by I can see what other artists have produced and get inspired by their production. Especially when it deals with our history.
You’ve received several awards through your career. How important is it for an artist like yourself to be recognized?
The awards I received are a godsend. I am able to frame my work, buy new equipment and generally produce my work in a professional manner. Recognition is nice, but this always leads to the next exhibition or film. The last work has to be the best work yet. And sometimes the work is already judged.
You’re known for satirizing and playing with stereotypes in your work. Why does that appeal to you as an artist?
Humour in my work usually suddenly appears. I often don’t think about making funny work, it just happens suddenly. I do like using it, though. It makes the subject more approachable and easier to make a statement about.
Your art is at the same time very personal and very political. Do you think an artist can avoid political overtones nowadays?
I don’t necessarily make political work just to be political. I believe it’s a product of what I am searching for. I am surprised when it does turn out to be as political as it does. So, I suppose, to answer your question, I can’t avoid political overtones, unless I decide to paint flowers.
Maureen Simpson | Editor-at-Large