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Award-Winning Artist Forges Unique Voice Across Artforms

Arts and EntertainmentAward-Winning Artist Forges Unique Voice Across Artforms

Throughout her career, Governor General award-winning multidisciplinary artist Shelley Niro has used an array of different mediums to tell stories rich with humor, heartbreak, and history which aims to create new powerful narratives for Indigenous Peoples, while dispelling generational stereotypes.   

Niro, who is part of the Turtle Clan of the Kanien’kehaka Nation and who grew up on Six Nations Territory, found a lot of inspiration around her during her childhood. Niro explains, “I grew up on the reserve [and] people were consistently making beadwork [and] sculptures. People were inclined to socialize with each other…and a lot of that [was the] history of the reserve.” Niro continues, “I was aware of two elderly women who were teachers…they usually painted people in traditional poses. They’re [were] also teachers of the Mohawk language. They were very influential.”

Niro has been painting all of her life and it is one of her favorite mediums. “Raven’s World” (Oil on canvas) was featured in her exhibition “Shelley Niro: women, land, river” at the Art Gallery of Peterborough in 2019. Photo courtesy The Art Gallery of Hamilton Collection.

However, Niro has used painting as a key medium to express herself. Niro says, “Painting is [an] easy way for being creative…you pick up the brush, and you pick up paint [and] you can pretty well do what you want to do with it.”

Niro had also ventured into other mediums such as photography with exceptional results and garnered the Scotiabank Photography Award for her work. Niro notes, “For me, photography is like magic…learning how to take a picture [and] learning how to develop it. And then you can go into the darkroom, and develop a photograph [and] it’s so satisfying. Seeing that you can do that. And now that we’re into digital, it’s a little bit different, but it’s still pretty satisfying.”

Niro, who is currently residing in Brantford, continues, “A lot of my photography [is] of my friends and family. And because working in art [I] don’t have that time to spend with [them], I always figure that having their portrait in front of me, I am sort of having a relationship with them as I’m [doing] on my work, and I just try to put as much time as I can, using that link between the subject and myself.”

This digital photograph by Shelley Niro entitled “Chiquita” has her mother as the subject. Many of Niro’s art features friends or family members. Photo Courtesy Shelley Niro.

Along with photography and painting, Niro has used film to great effect. Niro has made numerous thought-provoking films including one of her most acclaimed films called The Shirt. She explains its concept. “I was flying to a photo conference in Houston, Texas in 2002. And when I looked out the window, I could see all the land and it [was] cut up into little pieces of a blanket to me. So, as I’m looking at this window, I start thinking about the land that was taken, and how it was taken.”

Niro, who has earned a BFA in painting and sculpture from the Ontario College of Art, as well as a Master in Fine Arts from the University of Western Ontario, has learned more about film during her studies at the Banff Centre for the Arts.  Niro explains, “When I went to Banff, [there was a course] called Women in the Director’s chair, and it was a two-and-a-half-week process where women were put through these different exercises like writing, directing [and] producing. So that [was how I was] introduced to the different aspects of filmmaking.”

Shelley Niro at a screening of her film “The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw” at the 31st Arizona International Film Festival in 2021. Since 1990, Niro has made several acclaimed films that have been screened across North America. Photo Courtesy Shelley Niro.

Niro has been busy of late. Along with finishing a film called Café Daughter, she has helped create a multi-decade retrospective entitled Shelley Niro: 500 Inch. It is currently being featured at the National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center and will be running there until January 1st, 2024. The retrospective encompasses many of Niro’s work in different media including film and painting.

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