Rebecca Belmore's Trace: Hands of generations past and those that will come

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Every so often, my role as a curator of contemporary art affords me the great pleasure to meet an artist whose work inspires and whose perspectives lead to a close personal friendship. Rebecca Belmore is such an artist with whom I have worked since 1991. At that time, she invited me to participate in her nationally touring community-based performance project, Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother. This significant project was created in response to the summer 1990 Mohawk defence of their land in the town of Oka, Quebec. I was living in Ottawa at the time and was incredibly honoured by her invitation and then moved by the subsequent performance on the steps of Parliament Hill. 

Since that time, we have worked together and travelled for a number of exhibition projects throughout Canada and internationally. However, the development of this large-scale "ceramic blanket" for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has afforded me the unique opportunity to work with her more creatively in the conceptualization and realization of this installation, Trace. History, absence and memory are issues that preoccupy Belmore in her vast multidisciplinary art practice. Her reputation, across Canada and internationally, has been earned with performances and installations that reveal sensitivities to history and place, memory and absence.  

beads of clay on a table Belmore works with Red River Valley gumbo clay to create beads. Photo: Dan Harper / CMHR.

Many of Belmore's works involve intense and repetitive gestures with close attention to the materiality of selected elements. In 1994, she painstakingly “wove” onto wire mesh a blanket for “sarah” from thousands of pine needles collected over several weeks from the forest floor near Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario, close to her birthplace of Upsala. The woven blanket memorializes a homeless woman who froze to death on the cold streets of Sioux Lookout. Belmore has created other "blankets" that expose the traumatic history and ongoing violence against Aboriginal people. 

With the the creation of the large ceramic blanket, Trace, that she is creating for the CMHR, Belmore honours the original inhabitants of the land upon which the Museum is built. This land bears evidence of over 6000 years of Indigenous presence where 500,000 artifacts were excavated from the ground beneath the museum, including thousands of ceramic shards. Using clay from beneath the city of Winnipeg, thousands of small "shards" will be formed by hand. The action of squeezing a small lump of clay in one hand will produce an organic shape that will be pierced through the centre to become a "bead". These shapes, although unique, will identify as being similar due to the hand-made process and because of their vast number. The beads will then be fired and woven together to produce the large-scale blanket-like form. The use of clay, the earth itself, imbues the artwork with a sense of timelessness. The modest gesture of forming these beads is a reminder of how precious and universal the bond is between humans and the earth.

beads of clay on a table So far, approximately 5,000 beads have been created as part of the project. Photo: CMHR.

The human trace - the hands of generations past and those that will come - is an inherent part of the artwork. The hand-pressed clay beads will carry the imprints of the many hands of multiple cross-generational individuals in Winnipeg who collaborated with the artist in the realization of this work. For Belmore, this simple but laborious process invokes the idea that humans have been creating material culture since the beginning of our time and, hopefully, will continue well into the future. 

As an action, Trace is an acknowledgement of the depth of Aboriginal history and a symbolic replacement of the memory that was removed from the ground. As a commemorative testament to those who have gone before, Trace will transform the large wall upon which it will be installed into a symbolic space for reflection and regeneration, charged with a sense of hope for the future. 


Related links:

Renowned Canadian artist to create major original piece for CMHR
Public workshops with artist Rebecca Belmore

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