Belmore’s Performance of Photography
Amber-Dawn Bear Robe
an object, I do not struggle. I foresee that I shall
have to wake from this bad dream even more uncomfortably;
for what society makes of my photograph, what it reads
there, I do not know….but when I discover myself
in the product of this operation, what I see is that
I have become Total Image, which is to say, Death in
person; others–the Other….they turn me,
ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy,
at their disposal, classified in a file, ready for the
subtlest deceptions…”(Barthes 1981, 14).
The above excerpt, from Camera
Lucida, is Roland Barthes’ experience of
being photographed. In his quest to identify photography
in itself, his logic finds that he himself becomes the
object while the photographer attempts to keep the “subject”
looking “life-like.” The subject or spectacle
being photographed, he states, slips into becoming pure
object, and experiences a “micro-version of death”
(Barthes 1981, 14).
First Nations, Métis, Inuit
and Native Americans have a unique relationship with
photography. Historically, many Indigenous people have
avoided being photographed, thinking it may cause illness
or weaken the soul, and this “superstition”
has often been ridiculed by non-Native people (Hoelscher
2008). Yet, symbolically this weakening is precisely
what occurred when the camera was first used to document
Native peoples of North America. Photography in the
hands of colonizers and missionaries was used as an
oppressive tool to assimilate, objectify, and control
Native North Americans while leaving a negative legacy
for succeeding Indigenous generations. This photographic
objectification of Aboriginal cultures and people is
a relationship explored and critiqued by many contemporary
Native artists such as Canadian, Anishinaabe (Ojibwa)
artist, Rebecca Belmore. 1
Belmore is internationally recognized
for her performance work, particularly after being the
first Aboriginal woman chosen to represent Canada at
the 2005 Venice Biennial. The work she created for the
Biennial, Fountain, is a video installation that projects
a narrative onto a water screen. Recently, she was featured
in a solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, summer
2008, titled Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion.
A majority of her photos result from the documentation
of her performances. In this essay I will examine a
selected body of Belmore’s photographs that are
not performance documentations. My intent is to demonstrate
how her use of the medium of photography contributes
to reclaiming it as a positive device for herself and
representations of Native North Americans. Photography,
once used as a tool of colonial oppression, becomes
in Belmore’s work a forum for liberation and self-representation.
My central purpose is to examine three examples of her
work in the discourse of photography from a First Nations
Photography intertwined Indigenous
people with tourism and consequently turned the “Indian”
into a staple of American and Canadian popular culture
and national identity.2
The earliest photos taken of non-Europeans were taken
by anthropologists whose goal was to mark physical and
cultural characteristics that could be used as evidence
to document human evolution (Maxwell 1999, 38). Photography
was therefore used to enforce European superiority (intellectual
and moral), reinforce racial theories and stereotypes,
and support European expansion (Maxwell 1999, 9). This
process assumed that people’s differences were
encoded on the visual surface with skin color, also
known as anthropometry (Maxwell 1999, 39).
In addition, the advent of photography
and its early practitioners such as William Henry Jackson,
H.H. Bennett and Edward Curtis hastened to convey an
idealized and romantic representation of the savage
or stoic and “vanishing Indian” to the larger
public (Hoelscher 2008). The name and idea of the Indian
is a European construction; “Indians” did
not exist until European contact with the Americas.
These stereotypes have proven pervasive throughout the
centuries. Historian Dr. Elizabeth S. Bird writes “It
seems White culture cannot let go of its ingrained images
of American Indians” (Bird 1998, 257). Native
American historian and activist, Vine Deloria, Jr.,
states “[e]veryone loves the Edward Curtis Indians”
(Deloria, Jr., 1982, 11).
In the Edward Curtis photo, Hopi
Women (figure 1), the dress and hairstyles of the
four Hopi women seemingly grinding corn would likely
have been seen only in a ceremonial or performative
setting. Yet, without historic information or contextualization,
the viewer is made to believe that these women ground
corn in full ceremonial dress. In contrast to the photo,
corn grinding is a laborious process that takes several
hours, sometimes days. More precisely, the Curtis photo
is an unrealistic situation made to appear as a document
of Pueblo life.
Because the technological apparatus
of the camera is generally never brought to the viewer’s
attention, it does not obviously stand between what
the viewer sees in the photo and the captured image.
The camera and photograph presents false impressions
that fulfill the fantasy of witnessing reality; truth
is soured with manipulation. Scenes are contrived to
construct images of Indigenous peoples in strategically
dressed and posed scenes in order to invent an “authentic
Indian” that masks any traces of western influence
or dress (Maxwell 1999, 111). Photographers such as
Curtis consigned the “Indian” to the “eternal
world of commercial art” as Curtis’s photos
became foundational in the commercial world of western,
Native and tourist shops and galleries (Maxwell 1999,
113) (figure 2,3).
For Barthes, “photography transformed
subject into object, and even, one might say, into a
museum object” (Barthes 1981, 13). Colonial photography
and the scientific gaze left North America with a multitude
of images and objects cased in museums and archives.
Ethnographers and anthropologists implied that they
saved the “vanishing Indians” by placing
their photographic images in museums. However, photography,
once dominated by colonial and western powers, becomes
in Rebecca Belmore’s art, a forum for liberation
and self-representation. In her works, Belmore uses
the medium of photography to represent constriction
and binding of the Aboriginal female body, and transforms
this experience into one of growth, renewal, rebirth
and regeneration. The artist releases the figure from
a suffocating ideology.
The female body, usually her own,
is the main theme of Belmore’s work. The artist
explained this as the intersection of various identities
that merge together and are then expressed with her
body. According to the artist, her body reveals how
power relations and history shape and affect these identities
(Watson 2005, 28). The photo, White Thread
(figure 4), is a large color inkjet on watercolor paper.
The central image is a human female body wrapped in
red strips of cloth, to the extent that only the hair,
hands and feet are exposed.3
The body is doubled over; she bends forward and down
with her right foot resting lightly on her left foot.
The cloth binds her legs, resulting in the body forming
an oval shape. The red ribbon material has a white thread
stitched horizontally through the length of the fabric.
All bodily orifices are covered and her long dark brown/black
hair hangs out from the textile to form a shape resembling
an inverted paint brush. Shadows are cast from the body
onto the surrounding background to reveal a slightly
raised platform that the figure is standing on. The
red cloth and black hair sharply contrast with the stark
The image appeals to the viewer initially
as an aesthetically pleasing composition, but a closer
look reveals the figure to be in a claustrophobic and
frightening position, and seemingly at the mercy of
the photographer. The living mummified body enclosed
in the steeped red strips of cloth symbolize the trauma
of blood and violence and adds tension and emotion to
the image. Loosening the figure from the material would
require a shared and intimate experience, transforming
the object into a human. The body wears a cast, motionless
like a broken arm, signifying a breaking/ healing process.
Belmore has described White Thread as a response
to world events, specifically the war in Iraq; world
events which affect everyone including the environment
and global politics. The photo comments on western intrusion,
who continues to enforce its values onto other cultures
resulting in continuing the objectifying machine that
perpetuates misinformation, stereotypes and ignorance
towards others. This is a history familiar to Aboriginal
people, the image is about the struggle to survive and
Native North Americans’ initial
introduction to photography was as the continuous subject
of the camera’s gaze and being constantly objectified,
in other words, the process of spectacle which supported
European expansion and worked to “naturalize”
the classic story and image of the “Indian”
into the North American psyche.4
Images were used as means to justify expulsion and extermination
of Native North Americans, used as propaganda material,
and to document Native child assimilation into the western
education system. The most popular example, “before
and after” photos, was a common method used in
residential and boarding schools in which photographers
manipulated negatives and exposures to present the child
in the “before” image with darker skin tones
and the same child in the “after” photo
with lighter skin tones (figure 5).
“Before” photos highlighted
the Indigenous traits, such as long hair and traditional
clothing alongside “after” photos illustrating
the students’ transformation by highlighting civilized
traits such as short, combed hair, European dress and
props signifying industrialization and integration.
Belmore has documented her own recreation of before
and after photos. Belmore created a triptych photo series
Untitled, which consists of three large inkjet
prints on watercolor paper (figure 6). Like White
Thread, a woman is the central focus of each image.
The figure is attached to a white wall and caught mid
process of wrapping herself in white fabric. A coil
of fabric hangs below her torso and lays tightly twisted
on a grey and cement-looking floor. Her body casts slight
shadows onto the white wall to which she is adhered.
In the central photo of the triptych,
the body has been completely wrapped in the white material
with the figure hanging upside down. A strand of twisted
cloth suspends her to the unseen ceiling. The woman’s
head and upper shoulders rest on the cement floor; her
hair is sprawled around her creating an organic fiery
In the final image of the triptych,
the woman’s body is suspended onto the wall again,
but now completely wrapped except for the head and feet.
Her eyes are closed and her face is directed past the
viewer or photographer. The fabric encasing her is not
taunt and revealing of her figure, but is instead more
cacoon shaped. Hair cascades down around and past where
her shoulders are bound and she seems at peace.
The women in Belmore’s triptych
series of photos resist the controlling gaze. None of
them look at the viewer; all refuse to acknowledge,
accept or adhere to the rules of the gaze. Statistically
and historically, people of color or people who are
culturally defined as weak by the West, such as woman,
or those without technology and who are tribal or poor,
face the camera straight on (Lutz and Collins 2003,
360). Belmore refuses to represent an exotic spectacle
or a National Geographic subject, an ethnographic object,
or an Edward Curtis prairie princess.
Compared to the form in White
Thread, the fabric encasing the woman in Untitled
is not taut and suffocating, but is instead more papoose-shaped
and she seems at peace. Even though the female figure
is bound, it appears to have transformed from the constricted
figure in White Thread. Now, a sense of relaxation
and serenity is emitted from the insulated woman. Confinement
and restriction, before symbolized by the red fabric,
is replaced with the protection and nurturance of a
cocoon shelter. The color change of the material symbolizes
a change and adaptation to western civilization while
the internal being remains strong and true to self.
The “before and after” photos, in Belmore’s
work, are controlled and lead with an Indigenous vision.
Her face is free allowing her to breathe. The red of
violence and trauma is now gone, along with the figure
straining to be in a fetal shape, a position she was
desperately trying to achieve in White Thread.
Untitled demonstrates a process of cleansing
and healing; the body has found its way into a safe
and nurturing form of the womb. The white fabric of
protection and healing can be seen as a meeting of all
colors into a sense of unity, or an anticipation of
the colors yet to come with a new beginning. This series
symbolizes an opportunity for a new narrative, a new
history, a new direction of life that will encompass
the female Aboriginal form, body and spirit of the woman
who is in control of her identity and representation.
The colors red and white frequently
appear in Belmore’s work, two hues that reflect
binary opposites like: white/red, good/evil, European/Indian,
noble/ ignoble, and civility/savagery. Red is also a
central theme referring to blood. The blood previously
shed from genocide and colonialism now suggests a healing,
a release, a cleansing; Native blood and woman’s
blood. Belmore has previously worn and shed a red garment
in her performance called The Named and Unnamed.5
This blood letting and healing-wound process on the
female body can be seen taking place in the final and
most recent photo I will be examining, titled Fringe.
Fringe (figure 7), a life-sized
photograph presented as a lightbox transparency, situates
the female form in the center of the composition, but
now no longer bound or insulated with material. Without
restraint, the woman lays horizontally on her side on
a layer of white fabric, while her head rests on a white
pillow that aligns her head and neck to her spine. There
is little space around her; she consumes the majority
of the photograph. The wall color is reversed compared
to the first two photographs discussed. It is now gray
and the ground is white. Her back is towards the camera;
she faces away from the viewer with her averted gaze
opposing an objectifying historical “straight-on,”
anthropological, or commodified “Curtis”
gaze. Her right arm on her side and hand resting on
her hip and the left arm can not be seen in the image.
Her legs are bent towards her in a fetal like position
with the upper leg lying slightly lower on her bottom
leg. She is naked except for a white ribbed cloth, the
same cloth that lines the head pillow, covering her
hips and buttocks to below her knees.
Compared to the long tresses of the
woman in the first two series, the woman’s hair
is now short, sitting just above the neck and below
the ears, with a patch of blond highlighted strands
showing through the dark brown body of hair. Another
transformation unveils the unwrapped body showing the
women’s skin, form and back that is lacerated
with a roughly sutured, diagonal gash. The slash is
from the top right shoulder towards the buttocks, ending
somewhere underneath the white draping of fabric. The
dripping blood forms a red fringe that is mimicked by
white suturing thread.6
The wound has not been neatly or cleanly mended; it
is a wound meant to be seen with exaggerated stitches
that will forever leave their mark.7
In looking at the three photo works,
the red cloth changes to white, the female form emerged
from being bound inside material, to lying upon it.
The red cloth becomes blood being purged from the body
seeping from the fresh wound on her back; stitches suggesting
a healing with time. A deep scar will remain, but eventually
the wound will cease weeping blood. The wound and physical
injury can be seen as integral to the healing process
from the effects of colonialism and harmful representations
of Native North Americans.
The costume made the “Indian”
for photographers like Curtis. The half naked or fully
naked body made the costume for the ethnologist/anthropologist
and European clothing enforced by government and school
officials was the imposed costume for Native children.
Belmore transforms and removes the costumes to expose
the binding of the social uniform and shackles of expectations
for either being a woman, First Nations, or other expectations
placed on the female and Native body. Belmore prevents
the subject or spectacle from slipping into being pure
object and an image of death. She gives a contemporary
account of her relationship to photography and ultimately
reclaims control of her own female and Native identity.
Barthes, who struggled with what society
made of his photograph, discovered himself being a product,
an object of death in a person; feeling at society’s
mercy and disposal. While he describes a theoretical
process and end product of photography, the photograph
represents a real traumatic history and tool intentionally
used to exploit and destroy Native North Americans.
Belmore expresses this negative experience endured by
Native North Americans. With her use of photography
she transforms the medium into a process of reclaiming
control, leadership, vision, healing and strengthening
from a First Nations perspective.
Belmore was born March 22, 1960 in Upsala Ontario, Canada
and currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia,
In this essay the term Indian, Indianess or pan-Indian
refers to the derogatory use of the term and its connection
to stereotypes, power relations, colonialism and racism.
The woman used in Belmore’s photo work discussed
in this essay are hired models, none are of the artist
“Naturalization” and power relations,
according to theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques
Derrida and Kaja Silverman are hidden in the signs and
significations of language. The English and French language
was forced upon Native North Americans. Language control
was another tool used to eradicate and assimilate Native
North Americans into western and “civilized”
The Named and the Unnamed by Belmore includes sculpture,
photography, and video installation. The work addresses
the murders of more than seventy women who lived in
the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Many people
were outraged because authorities ignored the severity
of the situation because the majority of the women were
First Nations woman, drug users and prostitutes. A number
of female bodies were found dismembered on a Port Coquitlam
pig farm located east of Vancouver (Rickard 2005). A
serial killer, charged with the murders, was sentenced
to life in prison. Families of the murdered women were
finally given an opportunity to have closure and mourn
for the traumatic ending; murder, abuse and discrimination
suffered by these women, a familiar ending for many
Native North Americans, historically and presently.
Kaja Silverman used the term suturing in reference to
cinematography. In films narratives are stitched together,
but in a structure that hides the suturing process to
gives the illusion a clean, un-spliced story. These
narratives have been used to naturalize and support
myths that are ingrained in the North American psyche.
Silverman argues that in order to expose the illusion
of truths and power relations in western society, the
sutures must be made visible (Silverman 1983). The spaces
between the stitches, the blank moments that create
the dominant moments (binary opposites) are also valuable
signifiers. The moments in between are not usually witnessed
by the audience. Exposing the suture marks results in
exposing the construction of the story, the myth and
lies behind the image.
There are many other references and interpretations
one can make about the slash on the woman’s back,
but this is another discourse that will not be followed
in this paper. The fringe can also be seen as paralleling
Native beadwork and western wear, of which both are
popular in contemporary Native nations.
Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Reclaiming connections: Understanding residential school
trauma among Aboriginal people. Ontario: Anishinabe
Adams, David W. Education
for Extinction: American Indians and the boarding school
experience 1875-1928. Kansas: University Press of Kansas,
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida:
Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Bird, Elizabeth S. “Not
My Fantasy: The Persistence of Indian Imagery in Dr.
Quinn, Medicine Woman.” In Dressing in Feathers:
The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture.
Ed., Elizabeth S. Bird. Colorado: Westview Press, 1998.
Bradley, Jessica. “Rebecca
Belmore: Art and the Object of Performance.” In
Rebecca Belmore: Fountain. Exhibition catalogue. Canada
Pavilion, Venice, Biennale, 2005.
Brown, Julie. Contesting Images.
Photography and the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
Buium, Greg. “Body language:
Artist Rebecca Belmore’s new Vancouver exhibition
showcases her startling work.” July 2008, www.cbc.ca/arts/artdesign/story/2008/07/08/f-rebecca-belmore.html
Burgess, Marilyn. Indian Princess
and Cowgirls: Stereotypes from the Frontier. Exhibition
catalogue, Montreal, Quebec: OBORO gallery, May 1992.
Collins, Jane and Catherine
Lutz. “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes:
The Example of National Geographic.” In The Photography
Reader. Ed., Liz Wells. London and New York: Routledge,
Deloria Jr., Vine. “Introduction”
in The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs
of Indians by Edward Curtis. Washington: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1982.
Firstenberg, Lauri. “Autonomy
and the Archive in America: Reexamining the Intersection
of Photography and Stereotype.” In Only Skin Deep:
Changing Visions of the American Self. Eds., Coco Fusco
and Brian Wallis, New York: International Center of
Hoelscher, Steven. D. Picturing
Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies
in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells. Wisconsin:
The University of Wisconsin Press. 2008.
Laurence, Robin. “Rebecca
Belmore grapples with time and history.” June
5, 2008, www.straight.com/article-148333/history-silence
Lippard, Lucy R. “Independent
Identities.” In Native American Art in the Twentieth
Century: makers, meanings, histories. Ed., Jackson W
Rushing III, New York: Routledge, 1999.
Lyman, Christopher. M. The
Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians
by Edward Curtis. Washington: Smithsonian Institution
Maxwell, Anne. Colonial Photography
& Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’People
and the Making of European Identities. London and New
York: Leicester University Press. 1999.
Moser, Gabby. “Rebecca
Belmore: Rising to the Occasion.” July 2008, www.canadianart.ca/online/reviews/2008/07/24/rebecca-belmore/
Rickard, Jolene. “Rebecca
Belmore: Performing Power.” In Rebecca Belmore:Fountain.
Exhibition catalogue. Canada Pavilion, Venice, Biennale,
Ringlero, Aleta M. “Prairie
Pinups: Reconsidering Historic Portraits of American
Indian Woman.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions
of the American Self. Eds., Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis,
New York: International Center of Photography, 2003.
Silverman, Kaja. The Subject
of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “Have We Ever Been
Good?” In Rebecca Belmore: The Named and the Unnamed.
Exhibition catalogue, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery,
The University of British Columbia.
Tsinhnahjinnie, Hulleah J
and Veronica Passalacqua, eds. Our People, Our Land,
Our Images: International Indigenous Photographers.
California: The Regents of the University of California,
Art Gallery. “Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion.”
Press Release, 2008
Watson, Scott. “Interview: Scott Watson &
Rebecca Belmore.” In Rebecca Belmore: Fountain.
Exhibition catalogue. Canada Pavilion, Venice, Biennale,