Shelley Niro, a Toronto-based indigenous artist whose long career has deeply engaged both the presence and conspicuous absence of First Nations peoples here and in the United States, is the winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award.
The award, which carries a $ 50,000 prize, also includes a career survey exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre during next year’s Contact Photography Festival, and a monograph published by prestigious German art book publisher Steidl.
Niro, a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) Nation, Turtle Clan, is enjoying an uptick in profile recently. She has work on view in two separate exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Scotiabank prize is her second major accolade in a short span: in February, she was among the winners of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
Wanda Nanibush, the AGO’s assistant curator of Canadian and indigenous art, calls the laurels “long overdue.”
“She’s always been very subtle, very funny,” says Nanibush. “She has very serious political streams to her work — these monuments to our erasure — but her use of irony and humour invite you in and give you some hard truths.”
Indeed, Niro, who lives near Brantford, has long used her quietly absurd sense of humour to underscore the vast inequities between First Nations and the European settlers who long ago claimed their lands.
The Shirt, a signature piece from 2003 currently installed at the AGO, shows Niro in a landscape of rolling hills wearing sunglasses, her head swathed in a stars-and-stripes bandana.
Over nine individual images, her white T-shirt tells a story of colonial incursion: “My ancestors were annihilated exterminated murdered and massacred,” reads the first; “They were lied to cheated tricked and deceived,” it continues, until it concludes with “And all’s I get is this shirt.” The next frame shows Niro, stripped of her shirt, naked from the waist up, and concludes with a blown-dry white woman, in full makeup, wearing it in her place.
For this year’s Contact Festival, Niro took on the heavily loaded colonial symbolism of Fort York — a British garrison built to counter American aggression from the south, at the exclusion of the native peoples on whose land it was built — with her ongoing photographic series Battlefields of My Ancestors, a series of images of monuments to historic battles where indigenous settlements were wiped out by colonial invaders.
See scotiabankcontactphoto.com for more information on Shelley Niro’s current exhibitions for Contact.