Dudes Go to Market

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Saddle Up, 2009. Pinhole photograph, digitally enlarged.

Terrance Houle (Bood), Adrian Stimson (Siksika), and Jamison Chas Banks (Seneca-Cayuga/Cherokee), are in Santa Fe this weekend to perform a collaborative performance artwork. The performance is called Buffalo Dudes Go to Market and will take place Saturday, August 18th, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) at 4:45 pm.

I’ve written about Houle’s work previously on Not Artomatic, so I am reposting those entries. I’m anticipating a very interesting performance work from Buffalo Dudes. The essay below is about a series of photos taken as part of a performance by Houle at Calgary Stampede. I’m interested to see how Houle, Stimson, and Banks play with the particular dynamics of Santa Fe’s Indian Art Market.

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This  entry is about Terrance Houle’s series of photographs in the exhibition “Friend or Foe” at Or Gallery in Vancouver, BC, 2010. The show, curated by Darrin J. Martens, features work by Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle. The front of the gallery displays large pinhole photographs by Houle that he took at the Calgary Stampede in 2009. (See Figure 3). The Calgary Stampede is a ten-day rodeo festival that revels in all things cowboy. And how can you have cowboys without Indians? A makeshift Indian display set out on a sidewalk in front of The Metropolitan Centre features split-log fencing and a scaled down tipi. Houle, who is of Blood tribe ancestry, stands in a loincloth and commercial moccasins in front of the tipi. Each black and white photograph in this series was actually taken at the same moment, using simultaneous exposures from a number of pinhole cameras placed on-site.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Urban Indian, 2004

Several Native/First nations artists work with photographic images that involve the disruptive sight of a semi-traditionally dressed Indian in clearly modern circumstances. Other artists who used some version of this approach are Jason Lujan, Merritt Johnson, Greg Hill, Zig Jackson, James Luna, etc. I think what makes this particular series interesting is the use of the pinhole camera in different locations, all depicting the same moment. If you’re not familiar with how a pinhole camera works, it’s a low-tech process that uses a light-proof box with an aperture and a manual cover. Black and white photographic paper or film is placed on the back wall of the box. No lens is necessary. Pinhole cameras need longer exposure times depending on ambient light, ranging from five seconds to several hours. Obviously, pinhole cameras are not useful for action shots. The first time an image from a pinhole camera was affixed onto paper was in 1850. It is one of the earliest photographic devices, and its precursor, the camera obscura is traceable back to ancient Rome. Houle’s photographs in this exhibition have the classic hallmarks of pinhole photography: crisp, in-focus stationary objects and a slight blur to people (or anything that moves), as well as a noticeable curvature at the periphery.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Saddle Up, 2009. Pinhole photograph, digitally enlarged.










The most intriguing aspect of this series, and what differentiates it from Houle’s previous photographic work (see Figure 2), is the use of multiple pinhole cameras to capture the same (long) moment. The deliciousness of the idea is one part failure of the Western Cartesian system, one part postmodernism, and one part security camera. To unpack that statement, the Cartesian system assumes that there is a single viewpoint from which a neutral observer can determine the truth with absolute certainty. The spatial distortions that result from this least-mediated photographic technique combined with the use of multiple points of view fly in the face of supposed photographic truth and the “truth” authority of a singular viewpoint. Houle’s method here is symbolic of an overall shift in Western consciousness… away from certainty and absolute truth and toward the recognition of the viewpoints of other cultures – the upside of postmodern thought. (The downside of postmodern thought is the tendency for completely incoherent narrative). As for my “one part security camera,” I perhaps have less ground to stand on with that association, but it’s definitely a thought that occurred to me as I viewed the work in the gallery. The blurriness and distortion of the images resemble stills taken from security camera footage. Usually, we only see those images when a crime has been committed and excerpts from the footage, often from more than one vantage point, are shown to the public in hopes of eliciting information about a crime. There really isn’t a crime, per se, in Houle’s photographs at the Calgary Stampede, unless he has captured a crime against good taste, or a crime against authenticity, the indignity of cultural tourism, or a crime against history. But that’s tourism for you: an uncomfortable mingling of opportunism, appropriation, fantasy, enlightenment, and kitsch.

Performance Documentation: Vestige Vagabond

Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers, Vestige Vagabond, performance, August 2011

This blog post presents performance documentation from a performance I attended on August 20th, 2011. Vestige Vagabond was a public art performance by artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers. It was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Counting Coup at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The piece has been developing over the past couple years, but the locale for it’s most recent presentation is particularly significant.[1] The version I witnessed took place in the midst of SWAIA’s[2] annual Santa Fe Indian Market. The event has been held every year since 1922. The streets around the central plaza become an open-air market that attracts indigenous North American artists to sell their work. Indian Market brings an estimated 80,000 people to Santa Fe.[3]

Santa Fe Indian Market, August 2011.

Artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers described their intentions this way: In this performance, the value of Native American culture, ingenuity, function, aesthetics, and sharing will be emphasized through a series of new and unexpected objects and actions in a public interactive open market setting – under the museum’s portal.[4]

I saw the performance on the first day of Market, August 20th. It was repeated the following day. All the photographs accompanying this article are from this first performance. The heart of Vestige Vagabond is the street-market dynamics played out in a cultural market, where artists/artisans lay their handmade objects on a table for the perusal of buyers. Hupfield and Vickers began their performance with arrival and set-up, like the hundreds of artists at market, by pulling roller bags behind them, unpacking, and laying out objects on a market table. Ordinarily, there is a look-but-don’t-touch-without-permission standard for behavior at market. Many of the art objects for sale come with prices in the tens-of-thousands. The performance artists overcame audience reticence by demonstrating the use of some of the objects, such as the braids/Walkman/rock apparatus, and then passing the object to a bystander. They never gave verbal instructions and only spoke to each other. As the performance progressed, people in the audience became braver about exploring and using the objects being passed around. At the end of the performance, the artists wiped their sweaty faces with the napkins printed to resembled Canadian bills.[5]Then they gathered up and arranged all the objects in an attractive sales display, positioning themselves behind the table, much like the artists selling their work at the market.

I did not get to see the second performance, on Sunday, August 21st. Hupfield sent me the following statement about changes she and Vickers made to the second performance:

For the second day we wanted to find ways to help the santa fe crowd break through their role as passive observers and get them really involved. To help with this we started the performance by hand-printing two signs that read “not for sale” and “demos here now.” We also integrated a few more staged style actions together and responded directly to individuals in the crowd. For example we singled out Amber Dawn (Bear Robe) to wear our fringe gloves, distributed and boxed with the beads and did an impromptu honor dance with the tea cup for a mother who was carrying her child on her back. It was good times!

Welcome sign describing the performance outside of Museum of Contemporary Native Art.

The artists arrive.

Set-up begins.

Set-up continues.

Hupfield looks into a box with an eyepiece before handing it to someone in the audience.

The audience begins examining the objects.

Hupfield with rock, walkman.

The walkman, with braids and a rock attached, plays language lessons in indigenous languages.

Charlene Vickers presents a second walkman. This one played pow wow music.

A birch bark basket with wooden nickels and a magnifying lens.

Paper napkins printed to look like Canadian bills were kept in the back pockets of both artists.

The display table. The large squishy vinyl cylinder on the right corner of the table is huge pony bead.

The display table at the end of the performance.

Printed napkins used in the performance.

Artist Biographies:

Maria Hupfield works across disciplines to engage in intersecting points of dialogue between Western and non-Western visual representations and philosophies. Her practice evidences the body as a site of resistance, agency and social engagement. She is a member of Wasauksing First Nation and is of Anishnaabe/Ojibway Heritage. A graduate of the MFA program at York University, Maria holds a BA Specialist in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. Hupfield lives and works in New York City.

Charlene Vickers is an Anishinaabe artist living and working in Vancouver. She graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1994 and Simon Fraser University, Critical Studies in 1998. Born in Kenora, Ontario and raised in Toronto. Her art explores ancestry and living in urban spaces.[6]

Related Blog Entries: Native Performance Art and Performance Theory Rebecca Belmore: Vigil

[1] There is a brief video clip from a 2010 performance of Vestige Vagabond on You Tube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owl1Y3TDaIo
[2] SWAIA stands for Southwestern Association for Indian Art
[3] For more of the history of SWAIA and Indian Market, see http://swaia.org/About_SWAIA/History/index.html
[4] This description was posted to an Events page on Facebook prior to the performance. It also appeared on a signboard in front of the museum.
[5] The eligibility of Native artists from Canada is a recent change to Indian Market rules.
[6] Artist Biographies were provided by the artists.

History of Native American Fashion

Here is a 45 minute video of Jessica Metcalfe speaking about the history of Native American high fashion. She provides an excellent background on recent history of Native clothing and Native designers in fashion. She has done ground-breaking work on the topic and her presentation in the video is excellent. even if you are primarily interested in fine art or Native American material culture, you will find her presentation relevant and interesting. Some designers/artists featured in the lecture:Lloyd Kiva New, Margaret Wood, Wendy Ponca, Patricia Michaels, Virgil Ortiz, and more.

Jessica Metcalfe’s work, as shown in the video above, addresses gender issues, formal and symbolic elements, materials, and intersections between fashion, art, and technology. Jessica Metcalfe holds a doctoral degree in American Indian Studies from University of Arizona and currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship from University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She also writes a successful blog about Native American fashion, called Beyond Buckskin. The lecture took place January 19th at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM. Having her lecture available on the web is a great resource!

Sneaky Boundaries: Video of Merritt Johnson’s “Clouds Live Where”

I’ve written about work by Merritt Johnson in previous posts:  Clouds Live Where Performance Documentation and A Commentary on Animal and Human Boundaries – Merritt Johnson at Grunt Gallery. She is one of the artists with work in “It’s Complicated – Art about Home” at The Evergreen State College.  Johnson came to campus to perform a piece called Clouds Live Where in conjunction with that exhibition. I arranged for the performance to be recorded on digital video from the mezzanine above the performance, which took place outside the gallery in the large entryway to the building. The video above has been edited from 35 minutes down to less than 6 minutes.

In a previous post , I wrote the following:

Johnson’s work is a carefully crafted commentary on the boundaries that humans set and the boundaries set in the natural world. Patterns of migration, airflow, water evaporation, all create their own natural boundaries – factors not considered when we humans set our boundaries, borders, and fences. Johnsons points this out with a subtle, wry humor and beautiful handling of paint.

Clouds Live Where moves those same ideas from two dimensions into four dimensions: length, width, height (as in sculpture) plus the dimension of time, by making her interactions part of the artwork. Johnson’s persona in this performance is “Sneak,” a persona she has used previously in the performance Sneak and Lock-pick, from the 2008 Aboriginal Curatorial Collective Colloquium in collaboration with 2008 LIVE Biennale in Vancouver, BC.

Still-photo from Merritt Johnson's performance "Sneak and Lock-pick" as part of "Auntie-Hero" at the 2008 LIVE Biennale in Vancouver, BC

Artist and art-writer Francisco-Fernando Granados saw the Sneak and Lock-pick performance and wrote the following about the sneak persona and his/her relationship to borders:

“In conversation with the artist, I discovered that the piece emerged as an extension of her painting practice. In creating a performance, Johnson wanted to physically engage with her interest in the tension between geological structures and human-made boundaries. The translation from painting into performance added the element of the artist’s body into the tension. Johnson chose to represent her body in an ambiguously gendered and raced way: moccasins over shoes, a coyote hide peeking out of a “man’s” coat and a hat that covers her features. This figure is certainly hybrid, and could be understood as some kind of undercover agent. The border constructed in the performance is rigid and stagnant. Johnson addressed it by foregrounding her hybridity and by being in constant movement.  

This performance of a hybrid subjectivity that imagines a utopian transformation of the political space of the border also modified my perception of the social space by presenting a tableau vivant that allowed me to enact identification, empathy and solidarity as an embodied, aware viewer… The performative and utopian nature of the work resonates with the kinds of culture-making Spivak calls for in Who Sings the Nation State?[1] While the divide-and-conquer approach of the nation-state seeks to reify the borders between cultural groups as a way to limit the power that may arise from their cultural and political coalition, art such as Johnson’s can inspire the mind to seek alliances across communities that are rooted in a critical regionalism. Rather than simply standing in opposition to oppressive border, Johnson’s work stood outside, on top, within and without that structure, changing, collapsing it and creating a space that was all its own.”[2]

One of the appealing aspects of the 2010 performance in Olympia is its open-endedness. As you’ll see in the video, the police-type “do not cross” barriers from the 2008 performance have been replaced by custom-made Lucite barriers.  This opens our possible interpretations of the work to include consideration of natural forces, borders, and barriers to natural processes (think shifting weather patterns due to pollution, urbanization), without closing out consideration of political, cultural, or gendered boundaries.

I am not an impartial observer. I admit to having a favorite moment in the 2010 performance. It is when Sneak blows a fine blue pigment onto the Lucite barrier, making it much more visible. I remember the blue as startlingly blue in front of the expanse of red brick flooring. It was a moment of physical and symbolic beauty; the trickster coyote (Sneak), causes a barrier that has been manufactured to be nearly invisible to suddenly become visible – with humble spit and chalk. This is a significant moment of action in the performance. Once the barriers are visible, Sneak can get under those barriers and carry out his/her important business. Constantly working around those barriers exhausts Sneak. It shows in a slowing of movements, a tiredness in lifting the clouds. Ultimately, Sneak makes a blue ribbon unroll from the blue water area to the tan island-form. Sneak puts the suit-jacket back on, tucks the coyote tail back into the trousers, and shuffles off in dress shoes. Apparently, Sneak has business elsewhere.

For additional info:

Merritt Johnson’s Website: http://www.merrittjohnson.com
Francisco-Fernando Granados’ Website:
It’s Complicated – Art About Home Website:


[1] Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. Seagull Books: London, 2007.

[2] Francisco-Fernando Granados, unpublished paper “Seeing Across/Stepping Beyond: Critical Border Crossings,” 2010.

“Clouds Live Where” Performance Documentation

I am posting a selection of photographs taken during Merritt Johnson’s performance Friday, November 12th at The Evergreen State College. The performance “Clouds Live Where” was viewable from ground-level and from the mezzanine level of the Library Building. Space was marked out using tape, fabric, and specially constructed wood and lucite barricades. This is Johnson’s first use of these new barricades. The lucite top sections are barely visible in the photo above. A few minutes into the performance, Johnson’s “Sneak” persona runs into these nearly invisible barriers and then uses saliva and a fine blue dust to make the lucite barriers more visible.

The performance begins to the sound of rain and occasional thunder, plus the white noise of the industrial air circulation in the space, and the footfalls of passersby.”Sneak” carries a cloud from the end with the blue fabric (sea) to the end with the tan fabric (island). Johnson’s “Sneak” persona wears men’s trousers, a white button-down oxford shirt, a men’s hat, moccasins, and the tail-end of a coyote pelt peaking out from under the oxford shirt. She wears big honkin sunglasses under that hat, too. Sneak carries the clouds from one end to the other and a cascade of blue seed-beads falls out onto the tan fabric island. Once the clouds are emptied, Sneak meticulously tries to gather the rain back into the clouds to transport them back to the blue (water) area.

Gathering the beads(rain) to refill the clouds.

The Sneak works hard, carrying the heavy clouds between the symbolic land and sea areas. Sneak crawls, rolls under, and occasionally bumps into the barriers that make transporting the water into so much more work.
The barricades.
An exhausted Sneak tucks the coyote pelt into the trousers, puts on a jacket, fits the mocassined feet into loafers, and departs the scene.

The performance lasted 30 minutes. In the photo above, some audience members take a closer look at the final configuration of objects. The performance space was in the very large entryway that is the common pathway to get to the library and the computer lab. Students with huge stacks of books halted to watch for as long as their arms could take the weight of the books. Someone with a service dog stopped for about 10 minutes. Her dog was really eyeing that coyote tail. No one spoke – a space that is ordinarily loud with voices and footsteps was hushed and even reverent.

Artist Merritt Johnson is based in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches at Emily Carr. Her website is www.merrittjohnson.com

Merritt Johnson Performance this Friday at Evergreen

Merritt Johnson, Clouds Live Where, 2010

Artist Merritt Johnson is performing Clouds Live Where in the main entry area of the Library Building at The Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA) Friday November 12th at 5:30 – 6:00 pm. . Johnson’s paintings and mixed media work are on display down the hall in the college’s gallery as part of the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. There will be a brief curator’s talk in the gallery beforehand…starting at 5pm. Johnson’s performance this Friday takes the ideas present in her paintings: observations about boundaries created by humans, patterns of movement of wind, water, animal migrations – and moves those ideas into action in a physical space.

For more information on Merritt Johnson’s work and it’s relationship to the theme of home, you can click on the file below. It will open in a goofy tiny little window and will play the enhanced podcast (audio with still images). Better yet, download the file and play it through iTunes or your iPod-like device. This podcast was created by Evergreen students in the program Visions and Voices. They did their research, made a storyboard, and learned multiple software programs in a five week period!


Please try clicking the link above… this is new technology/file format for me. I am lookinig for a better way of including m4a files on my blog.

Megaphone? What Megaphone?

Drawing based on photo of Belmore's performance "Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother," from 1991.

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):

Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist?

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

Is it Really Possible to QUIT Art?

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…[1]

            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.”[2] 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.

[1] Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Kinds of KnowingLand Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada.  Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992.  p. 97.

[2] 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.

Is It Really Possible to QUIT Art?

When rumors went flying around that artist Rebecca Belmore QUIT art, I wondered if it was really possible for any of us who make art to actually quit doing so. Sure, we might have long fallow periods. But when you have a lifelong habit of making objects in order to think through ideas, forbidding yourself from making art is like forbidding yourself from thinking complete thoughts. I mean, really, who has an incomplete thought? More details about WHY Belmore performed the piece Worth on September 11th in Vancouver have slowly been trickling out. If you are new to this series of events, see previous posts Rebecca Belmore Quits Being and Artist? and UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?. Links open in separate windows.

A new article by Marsha Lederman from Globe and Mail had this NEW information:

Worn down by an escalating legal dispute with her former art dealer, Rebecca Belmore – one of this country’s most prominent contemporary artists – arrived at a difficult decision over the Labour Day weekend.

Nearly four years after terminating her relationship with gallery owner Pari Nadimi, and three years after Nadimi began legal proceedings against her, the Anishinabe artist had had enough.

“I was thinking about the pressure of the lawsuit, and I thought: ‘Well, what if I just quit? What if I just quit making art? Then there’d be no problem with making money.’ ”

A week later, on Sept. 11, Belmore staged what would become a much-discussed performance art piece, in large part because of the way it ended: with the artist shouting “I quit!” The Canadian art world was stunned. Was Belmore – who represented Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale – really quitting?

In her first interview since staging Worth (– Statement of Defence), Belmore has revealed to The Globe and Mail that she had planned to issue a formal statement on the Tuesday after the long weekend to announce that she was quitting.

“Maybe I was a little crazy at that point,” she said in her East Vancouver studio this week. “But when I look back at that moment, that weekend, I thought: ‘If I lose this lawsuit, or if I can’t defend myself against this claim, I have no idea what I’ll do.’ ”

Nadimi, who is based in Toronto, represented Belmore from 2000 to 2006. The dealer alleges that Belmore terminated their agreement without notice, interfered with the gallery’s sale of her art, and that when she left the gallery was in active negotiations for nearly $1.1-million worth of sales revenue in connection with the artist’s works.

Nadimi is seeking $750,000 for wrongful termination as well as unspecified damages for wrongful interference, and unspecified punitive damages for “egregiously high-handed conduct,” according to the statement of claim.

In her statement of defence, Belmore argues she had the right to refuse the sale and did so for “personal artistic reasons.”

“It took my breath away,” Belmore says of the dollar amounts attached to the most recent amendment to the statement of claim, which was filed in Ontario court in June and raised the amount sought for damages for wrongful dismissal from $250,000 to $750,000.

In her statement of claim, Nadimi makes specific reference to the Biennale.

“The Art Gallery’s efforts to promote Belmore were highly successful. In 2005, Belmore was named as Canada’s official representative at the 2005 Venice Biennale, one of the pre-eminent international art exhibitions in the world. This achievement represented a tremendous accomplishment for both Belmore as an artist and the Art Gallery as a successful promoter.”

The statement alleges that Belmore stopped a sale of her work Megaphone to the National Gallery shortly before the work, valued at about $100,000, according to Nadimi, was to be shipped.

This was “embarrassing to the Art Gallery, damaging to Nadimi’s professional reputation and caused her significant mental distress,” her statement of claim reads.

But behind the scenes at the time, Scott Watson, who co-curated Belmore’s Biennale work, was urging the artist to part ways with Nadimi. Belmore says she stuck with Nadimi because it didn’t feel right to leave. “I felt it was unethical to leave her when I was getting this tremendous gig, and I thought it’s not fair to her; it’s not a very nice thing to do.”

Nadimi has not returned calls from The Globe and Mail and her lawyer says they won’t discuss the matter as it is before the courts.

The lawsuit has weighed heavily on Belmore, 50, and on Labour Day weekend it reached the boiling point.

Friends and family managed to talk her out of quitting on back-to-school Tuesday, but spending that week discussing the fight with her legal team (two advisers – one in Toronto and one in Vancouver – are volunteering their services) only reignited her turmoil. “I started to get all undone again.”

By Saturday morning, Sept. 11, Belmore was a mess.

“It was a traumatic morning in my household … I thought there’s no time like right now. I feel this immediately now, this morning. It was very intense. I thought I’m tired of it interfering with my home life, my marriage, my relationships with my sister, my friends. I’m sick of talking about it. I’m sick of listening to advice. I’m sick of seeking advice. So I thought, ‘Well, let’s just go out and do something today.’ ”

At about 9:30 that morning, Belmore called up artist Harold Coego, with whom she shares a studio, and asked for his help. They bought some supplies, and on the street outside her studio painted the sign for the performance. “I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars To My People,” it read.

The sign was done by about 2 p.m. An hour later, Belmore staged Worth outside the entrance to the Vancouver Art Gallery. She sat cross-legged in front of the sign and a garbage can, then scrubbed the sidewalk, laid out pieces from her work Wild, and lay down. Then, after carefully wrapping the pieces up, she presented them to Daina Augitis, chief curator at the VAG, and yelled “I quit!”

The declaration was spontaneous. “It just slipped out of me. It came to me naturally to say that at the very last minute.”

But gifting the work to the VAG was a deliberate and integral part of the performance. “[Worth] started with the whole idea of: what is an artwork worth? … Who is allowed to give and whose right is it to take? So it’s all about giving and taking and the fact that the art – not just the object, more the idea – belongs to me.

“Artists, I think, are very generous people and I wanted to publicly illustrate that.”

After the performance, Belmore felt “immense relief” that her plight had been made public. And help came. Within a couple of days, Watson purchased the sign from Worth for the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, where he is director and curator. Glenn Alteen with Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery launched a Rebecca Belmore legal defence fund, which has attracted more than 950 supporters on Facebook and raised about $1,500. Alteen is also organizing an online fundraising auction, with artists such as Ed Pien, Sonny Assu, Kelly Mark and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun donating works.

The support has buoyed Belmore. She is feeling recharged. The night before her interview with The Globe, she started making art again: a T-shirt reading “Thank you.”

Still, she isn’t ruling out quitting in the future. “Who knows? If I lose, and I owe somebody tons of money, then maybe I’ll quit. I used to be a really good waitress.”

At this point, none of the allegations in this case have been proven in court. Belmore will rely on the funds raised to travel to Toronto and fight the lawsuit. She says she does not have the money to cover lawyer fees – or more than $750,000 in potential damages.

“Even though I’ve had all this critical success, it doesn’t necessarily boil down into dollars,” she said. “As an artist, I’m not obsessed with making a lot of money. I’m more obsessed with being a good artist and trying to contribute to culture. I’m not out to make a million dollars. ’Cause I’m worth much more than that – as the sign says.” To see the orginal article in Globe and Mail, click here.

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

Rebecca Belmore in her performance "Worth" on Sept 11, 2010

I am posting this announcement made by Glenn Alteen on Facebook. Not everyone uses Facebook, which is why I am reposting it here on Not Artomatic. I have desperately searched for information on this situation and it has been hard to find – well, here are the details:

by Glenn Alteen

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE September 14, 2010

On Saturday September 11, 2010 Anishnaabe artist Rebecca Belmore performed her new work WORTH (– Statement of Defence) outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). A small audience of artists and curious onlookers gathered as witnesses to the per…formance. (Belmore also donated an earlier work, Wild, (2001) to the VAG.)

‘Witness’ is appropriate in this context, as is the setting of the VAG, a former courthouse building. The performance and the video memorializing it, are Belmore’s response to law suits filed in the Ontario courts involving her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi of Toronto. The work demonstrates the artist’s public commitment to vigorously defending herself, her art practice and more broadly, the rights of all artists against those who seek to exploit them.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), may be viewed at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv9DfVAzok4

Belmore is an acclaimed artist with an international reputation. She has practised in various media, including performance, sculpture, video and photography for over 20 years. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally since the 1980s, most notably, representing Canada at the biennials held in Venice, Sydney and Havana. She also holds an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). In spite of the artist’s significant and broadly-recognized contributions to contemporary art practice, this ongoing litigation, threatens Belmore’s future.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), which features the sign, “I AM WORTH MORE THAN ONE MILLION DOLLARS TO MY PEOPLE,” speaks directly to the value of artists and art production in the 21st Century. The sign also references the amount of ‘damages’ being claimed by Pari Nadimi, an amount the dealer claims she has ‘invested’ in Belmore’s career. Nadimi’s allegations are unproven.

The legal battle began over 4 years ago, when Belmore, after deciding to leave the Pari Nadimi Gallery, requested the return of her artworks, related documentation and the payment (and an accounting) for artwork sold by the dealer. These basic, legal rights are still being violated. Belmore recognizes the importance of the case for herself and others: “If Pari Nadimi is successful in this claim against me, it would mean no artist would ever be free to choose to leave. Artists would be slaves to their galleries. This is a horrible precedent.”

Litigation is expensive. Belmore needs to raise funds to travel to Toronto and to continue to defend herself in this action. While claiming to be impecunious and unable to pay, Nadimi has hired a top Bay Street law firm, Heenan Blaikie. Ironically, the firm’s founder, Roy Heenan, has been a consistent supporter of Canadian art.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), is therefore an appeal to the public to defend and support “the Artist” and the rights of artists to decide how and where their work is presented. Organizations such as CARFAC < http://www.carfac.ca/> and others do valuable work to create conditions to ensure rights are protected and respected. However, they lack the mandate and resources to support individual artists in these cases.

Call To Action: A growing number of prominent Canadians in the art world have voiced their support for Belmore, see our website or Facebook for these names. In addition to the moral support, Belmore is seeking donations to defend herself in this litigation. To support her and artists right generally on Facebook


A site is being set up currently and will be linked here when its onlineFor more information about Rebecca Belmore, please see: http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/home.html

Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist?


Rebecca Belmore did a performance in Vancouver, BC in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday, September 11th. I only found out about it two hours before it was to happen – not enough time for me to make the 4 hour drive to go up there. Afterward, I heard from others who were there that at the end of the performance, Belmore announced that she was QUITTING! The rumored reason is that she is being sued by a former dealer. Her performance took place in front of a sign that said “I AM WORTH MORE THAN A MILLION DOLLARS TO MY PEOPLE.” I sincerely hope that Belmore does not quit being an artist. Her work is important in so many ways. I will post more information about this when I have something more than rumors.

For more about Rebecca Belmore see my previous posts

Rebecca Belmore: Vigil and The Named and The Unnamed

Friend or Foe – Part III: Photos from Rebecca Belmore’s Video Installation at Or Gallery (May 2010)

Narrative Strings, thanks to Marcia Crosby

Were you there? I’d love to have a guest essay on the event, or if that’s too much work, just reply in the comments section!