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Governor General’s Award celebrates the work of Shelley Niro, MFA’97

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | May 8, 2017

Shelley Niro, MFA'97, pictured in her photo
"The Rebel," 1991 colour photograph by Shelley Niro, MFA'97.

Shelley Niro can’t see herself doing anything other than making art.

“It’s such a deep need to create,” said Niro, MFA’97. “Art is creative. You get your mind going. You get your brain going on something. If nobody did art, if nobody decided to make something new, what a boring world it would be.”

Niro was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in March. The award was created in 1999 by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General of Canada, an honour that comes with a $25,000 prize and recognizes outstanding career achievement in visual and media arts.

The need to create is something that’s proven to be the impetus in her work for three decades. Because of it, Niro has amassed a catalogue of multimedia works – paintings, photography, sculptures, beadwork and films – which contribute and look to re-define Indigenous identity in Canada. She often features family members in her works and uses art to explore myths about Indigenous people, making playful commentary about contemporary stereotypes.

Her multimedia visual artwork has appeared in exhibits across North America and has received numerous accolades which, in addition to the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, include being named a fellow of the National Museum of American History and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

“I feel quite honoured to receive this (Governor General’s) award. They told me in October, but asked me not to tell anybody. It was really hard because you’re so excited, but you can’t tell anybody. It was a long stretch,” Niro said with a laugh.

Shelley Niro, MFA'97.

A member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Niro was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., but grew up on the reservation near Brantford, Ont. Her passion for art was sparked early on, thanks to growing up in an artistic community.

“There were a lot of creative people around me. I could see that people made things with their hands and I followed that example,” she said.

By the time she arrived at Western, Niro was already well established in her career. She was encouraged, however, by Sheila Butler, a professor in the Faculty of Visual Arts at the time, to pursue her master’s degree.

“I was impressed by Shelley’s creative ability to link her Aboriginal heritage to contemporary visual art modes of expression and presentation,” said Butler, MA’93, now a professor emeritus. “At that time, I felt participation in our MFA program would give her the encouragement and information that would help her to continue to make and exhibit her important work.”

Niro found the Western experience demanding, but positive in terms of deepening her appreciation for the value of research as it relates to the creation of art.

“It was a lot of work. A lot of intense, concentrated effort,” Niro said. “When I did graduate, it took me a long time to calm down from the whole experience. But, it opened my eyes to a lot of things about research and how much work you have to put into something to really understand what you’re trying to talk about. It gave me the opportunity to look more closely at history and myth and perspectives of Iroquois history.”

While still a student at Western, Niro shot one of her films, Honey Moccasin, with the help of a Visual Arts class. Students helped design costumes and parts of the set, and also filmed a scene in the movie. Honey Moccasin won Best Experimental Work at the Dreamspeakers Festival in Edmonton, Alta. and Best Feature, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Director at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“She’s a very bright and creative person. And also, very grounded. Because she was already an established artist, and it was the early days of our graduate program, she came across as having artistic maturity, wisdom and an awareness that was really remarkable,” said Patrick Mahon, Visual Arts professor and graduate chair, who remembers Niro well.

Her art, and the messages contained within, reflect what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is encouraging, he added.

“Some of her work has been directed towards healing and telling a story related to Indigenous people that is not understood, and hasn’t been understood, but telling it in a way that often involves humour and has a gentleness of spirit.”

While Niro knows it’s important and worthwhile to break barriers, she also stressed oftentimes there’s value in simply finding levity in art.

“The world is a great place; it’s a fun place to be in. You can’t really get stuck in a rut thinking about all the horrible things going on in the world. The opportunities are endless. I think that’s one of the best parts of making art and looking at art.”

Mowhawks in Beehives
Pictured is Shelley Niro’s hand tinted photograph called "Mohawks in Beehives" (1991).

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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