By Ryan Rice
Multidisciplinary artist Shelley Niro (1954 – ) is from the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and is a member of the Turtle Clan from the Oshwekon, Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Born in the United States in Niagara Falls, New York, Niro occupies a space distinguished by her multi-nationality. Her inherent right to belong to traditional territory overlapping colonial borders supports her fluid creative perspectives.
Niro’s practice as a painter, photographer, sculptor and filmmaker has garnered acclaim and accolades at many levels, commanding critical attention including an Eiteljorg Fellowship and the Woman in Film/GM Acceleration Grant. Her contemporary Indigenous perspective is based upon traditional knowledge; her sense of community and colonial critique re-contextualized through matriarchal wisdom, metaphor, masquerade and related expressions of sovereignty. In her flirtatious work Mohawks in Beehives (1990), a hand-tinted photographic series, Niro re-introduced the world to the complex nature and authority of the matriarch, a figure from traditional and contemporary societies that was oppressed under forms of colonialism. By re-addressing matriarchal matters, Niro confronts forms of power, stereotypical attitudes, sexuality, and society. Her aesthetics are doused with humor, play, adornment, and kitsch.
Niro’s acknowledgement of family, community, and nation made way for her to focus on challenging mainstream society’s preconceived notions of “Indians” by posing real individuals – including her mother, sisters, and herself – in her work. Her mother Chiquita June Doxtater, poised atop a vintage Mustang (The Rebel) and situated under a retro-hair dryer (The Iroquois is a Very Highly Developed Matriarchal Society), is a picture-perfect means to convey the spirit of a transitional feminism of past and present and to deny outmoded anthropological banter. Niro’s self-portraitures mimicking Elvis (Love Me Tender) and Marilyn Monroe (500 Year Itch) are part of a dozen triptychs assembled in the 1992 photo series This Land Is Mime Land. By juxtaposing images of herself masquerading as popular iconic figures along-side “historical” photographs culled from her family archive and personal self-portraits, Niro creates a space to contemplate the configuration of identity and challenge facets of misrepresentation, past and present. Niro frames her photographs within an Iroquoian beadwork pattern design as a mnemonic device and cultural connection to the foundations of traditional knowledge and Mohawk philosophy/cosmology.
In her short award-winning experimental 1992 film It Starts With A Whisper, Niro wrote, co-produced, and directed a multi-faceted unpredictable narrative of identity, self-discovery, and belonging. This expansion of her photographic oeuvre brought to life women who matter—who live, love, laugh, and sing. Her passion for film continued with several shorts and the ambitious multi-genre film Honey Moccasin (1998), a contemporary Pan-Indigenous account of individual and communal transition in the face of the long-standing effects of the colonial project. Her award-winning films, including The Shirt, which had its debut in Venice, Italy during the 50th Venice Biennale, have been screened at festivals worldwide. Niro’s first full-length film Kissed By Lightning was premiered in 2009 at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto and won Best Indigenous Film at the 2010 Santa Fe Film Festival.
Shelley Niro lives in Brantford, Ontario. Her work can be found in the collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Indian Art Centre, National Gallery of Canada, Rockwell Museum of Western Art, and other institutions. She is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and received her M.F.A. from the University of Western Ontario in 1997.