Rebecca Belmore is a hands-on kind of artist, and when the public art commission she is working on, titled Trace, is installed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in mid-June of this year, it will carry the imprint of her hands, as well as many others. Belmore, a Winnipeg-based Anishinabe, is making a blanket out of thousands of clay beads shaped by hand from Red River valley clay gumbo. From now until the end of March, students from five Winnipeg high schools, as well as members of the general public, will fashion the clay beads in a temporary studio Belmore has set up in Neechi Commons, an Aboriginal co-op in the city’s North End. “It’s an organic process, people drop in and participate by making a couple of beads. All the pieces carry the print of someone’s hand and the detail of their palm, so the inside of everyone’s hand will be cast in the land itself.” Belmore likes the double register of this tactility; the hand is what makes the piece and what remains in the piece is the trace of the hand. “Trace exists between the individual and the community,” the artist says. “What it pulls together is the idea that we are a people—we all belong to a shared community.” The process that gets the piece made is as significant as the object that gets made from the process. “Strangers come together and we sit around the table having conversations and we laugh. There is something lovely about that.”
In one way, Belmore’s ceramic sculpture involves a degree of historical reformulation. She is aware that the blanket is wrapped in a dark history (in the 18th century blankets were deliberately infected with smallpox as a way of killing off the Aboriginal population) but Belmore sees it as an object open for interpretation. “The beauty of the piece is that it goes beyond indigenous people; it is about all the people who came to live in this place.” That openness to a layered settlement is why Belmore decided to use Manitoba clay dug up from all around the city and not only material that came from the museum’s excavation site. The finished sculpture will be both familiar and disorienting. “Everyone knows what happens when you throw a towel over a doorknob. Imagine what that looks like; except this one will be 40 feet tall.”
Once the clay beads are finished at the end of March, they’ll be sent to the Banff Centre for the Arts to be fired over 10 days, and then shipped back to Winnipeg to be assembled in an even bigger studio, before being strung together with string or aircraft cable. “We’re still working on that,” Belmore says. “We have a lot of work to do. It’s very jam-packed.”
Rebecca Belmore is one of Canada’s most distinguished Aboriginal artists. She has won the Hnatyshyn Award (2009), the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2013) and was chosen as the first Aboriginal woman to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale (2005). She has also participated in some 60 one-person and group exhibitions around the world.