Megaphone? What Megaphone?September 22, 2010
AND now I have more to say about the recent trouble swirling around esteemed artist Rebecca Belmore, all a result of the lawsuit brought against her by her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi Gallery. Just in case you don’t already know the details, please see my previous posts(all links open in a new window):
I’ll assume that you already know that one of the big monetary claims against her by the gallery is that she nixed the sale of a particular piece of artwork(identified as Megaphone) to a major Canadian museum – something that Nadimi would have made a huge profit from. I have spent some time thinking about the piece that newspapers keep calling Megaphone. If it’s the piece that I’m thinking of, I don’t think it is actually titled “Megaphone.” It could be described as a megaphone, but the actual title on the occasions where it has been put to use, to my knowledge, is Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother. The sculpture is actually an object used in a series of performance artworks. I can understand why the artist might have second thoughts about turning it over to a museum. I tried to write about this particular work in my dissertation and ended up deciding that this work had crossed over from art world territory and into ceremony. It didn’t feel right to write about it strictly as a work of art, but I know I’m not qualified to write about it as a ceremonial object. But since this piece is now at the center of a controversy, I think it needs to be talked about one way or another, even if I feel uncomfortable about it.
The first performance of Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, occurred in Banff, Alberta (1991) and consisted of thirteen First Nations speakers addressing the earth through the use of this large megaphone constructed of wood with exquisitely sanded and painted surfaces. This is “talking back” on an entirely different order than envisioned by post-colonial theory, and a very different synaesthetic relationship between subjects. The audience in this case consists of the thirteen people (who are also the performers) and an entity (the earth) that does not hear in a conventional sense. The two-and-one-half meter wide megaphone is a beautifully crafted object and the trumpet-like form can be compared to the form of a flower executed in gigantic scale. Out of the thirteen addresses delivered to the earth in the initial performance, only a partial transcript of Belmore’s address through the megaphone is available:
My heart is beating like a small drum, and I hope that you mother earth can feel it. Someday I will speak to you in my language. I have watched my grandmother live close to you, my mother the same. I have watched my grandmother show respect for all that you have given her…Although I went away and left a certain kind of closeness to you, I have gone in a kind of circle. I think I am coming back to understanding where I come from…
Taken as a prayer, as such an oration performed in a group of elders must be considered, it is a customary formula. The pattern, rhythm, and words chosen are those of oratory prayer. I originally thought this to be the reason only a portion of the address has been reproduced in print. I thought it possible that the orations of the elders were not recorded or are considered protected, confidential, and arguably ceremonial in nature, thus making it inappropriate for reproduction in an art catalogue. I found out more about the situation during the INDIANacts conference in 2002. Belmore explained that during the first performance using this trumpet-like device, a hiker some distance higher up the hill slipped on the loose shale and fell to his death. There was no literal connection between the hiker’s death and the use of the sound-producing sculptural object used in the performance. Even so, Belmore spoke of this event as devastating and seriously affecting the performance. She had some question at the time as to whether they should continue with the performance at all. But acknowledgement of that death became part of the performance. The trauma of the event – the loss of a life – transformed a performance into something more akin to ceremony. The death required acknowledgement, lest the trauma of that event harm those present. This is not a performance; it is not any sort of play, not even deep play or dark play. Out of absolute necessity, a collaborative performance that held traditional meanings and incorporated the sacred became a very serious and necessary impromptu ceremony. The direction that this performance unexpectedly took is something Belmore said she had not been able to publicly discuss for more than ten years. She seemed reluctant to discuss it still, and it is a reluctance I share. However, what happened to that performance makes an important point about the ethics of Native and First Nations performance art practices. Performances have power. There are consequences that must be dealt with, not just for the artist, but for the participants, the audiences, and for the very ground upon which they stand.
Documentation of this performance has been somewhat sketchy, which is certainly understandable under the circumstances. It is important to note that the performance format using this sculptural megaphone was utilized subsequently without ill effect.
After this initial address to the earth, the megaphone was put to a clearly political use as part of a formal protest by the Assembly of First Nations directed against the First Minister’s Conference held in Ottawa in June of 1996. Charlotte Townsend-Gault describes this movement of the work into an overtly political context as “the ultimate vindication of the work.” Conceptually for those involved in future performances using this means of address, the ceremonial honoring of the death on the mountain adds to the power perceived to be inherent in the trumpet-like form.
Speaking to Their Mother, in its various incarnations is less about the body than about the word, and being heard. It is a means of communicating with each other as well as communicating with something larger than ourselves. Conceptually, each address delivered through this means carries with it the power and meanings of the addresses preceding it. Now knowing more about the history of this performance and its permutations, I find it more and more difficult to write about it as art, even though it incorporates an incredibly beautiful sculptural form. I also am not qualified to write about Speaking to Their Mother in ceremonial terms because it is not my place to do so. To know when to be silent is sometimes more important than to know when to speak.
I wrote that paragraph above in 2005. Now that this work of art is at the center of the lawsuit by Pari Nadimi Gallery, I think it is important to imagine that Belmore’s “personal artistic reasons,” for not turning the piece over to the control of a museum may be very complicated and are not entirely personal, either, but are collective. This artwork blurs the lines between performance art and ceremony. It’s more a living object than a relic for a museum. What if it is needed for future use – spiritually or politically? Negotiating the sale of an object that the artist (and her community) might need to ”borrow” back for use in a performance, ceremony, or a protest would complicate the conditions for sale. Really, it’s probably better not to sell it at all.
I think any art dealer with a basic understanding of (and respect for) aboriginal culture and who knew the history of the “megaphone” would understand that this piece could only be sold under very special circumstances and with substantial rights reserved for the artist in the event that the artist needed the work for a performance (or a ceremony). In addition to pressing questions about how on earth an artist can change gallery representation without getting into a pickle, this case also raises the question of how on earth indigenous artists can maintain control over sensitive cultural material in such an unequal financial relationship? Does this lawsuit sound like another instance of cultural appropriation?
And is the media’s failure to use the full title of the work with its aboriginal language, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, an attempt to erase the cutlural authority of the artist and the work?
Donations to Rebecca Belmore’s legal expenses can be made at this website: http://rebeccabelmorelegalfund.com/how_to_help.html
You can also find the Rebecca Belmore Legal Fund on Facebook.
 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Kinds of Knowing. Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992. p. 97.
 Charlotte Townsend-Gault. Hot Dogs, a Ball Gown, Adobe, and Words: the Modes and Materials of Identity. Native American Art in the Twentieth Century. W. Jackson Rushing III, ed. New York: Routledge, 1999. p. 122.