Interviews By Larry Abbott

Shelley Niro

Sara Bates
Rick Bartow
Pat Deadman
Joe Feddersen
Anita Fields
Harry Fonseca
Bob Haozous
Printup Hope
Bobby Martin
Gerald McMaster
George Morrison
Shelley Niro
Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather
Diego Romero
Mateo Romero
Bently Spang
Ernie Whiteman
Richard Ray Whitman
Alfred Young Man
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The photography of Shelley Niro explodes myths about Native people through a focus on individuals: her mother, other family members, and herself. Using both single shots, triptychs, and multiple-panel series, and both historical and new photographs, she challenges the idea that Native people are a restricted class or are unable to have full lives as individuals in society. At the same time, Niro does not ignore the deforming effects of history, politics, bureaucracies, and injustice.

"Portrait of the Artist, Sitting with a Killer, Surrounded by French Curves," hand-tinted photograph
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In Passing Through (1993) Niro creates a narrative by showing her mother walking beneath a street sign that declares "Woodstock The Friendly City." The last panel shows the same figure walking away from the camera, next to a sign that reads "Thank You Call Again." In between these two photographs are three shots: the impersonal City Hall (actually in Brantford), the imposing Provincial Court Building, and the usual "No Parking" signs ("Unauthorized Vehicles Towed Away") framed by another municipal building in the rear. An initial irony emerges between the first and fifth shots and the middle three, as the polite signs which frame the city are contrasted with the coldness of the city's civil architecture and unpeopled streets. The irony is heightened with the realization that this Native walker is a foreigner in the city, and that the purported friendliness may not extend to her.

Niro has taken other excursions into downtown Brantford (named after Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant, who led a group of Iroquois, mainly Cayugas and Mohawks, from New York into Ontario after the Revolutionary War). One day, Niro and her sisters "invaded" the city as an act of personal empowerment. As "an exercise in liberation" and as a way to regain a sense of control, she and her sisters dressed up, "developed alter egos," and spent the day in Brantford. 1 The Mohawks in Beehives series (1991) is a documentation of this day. In "Red Heels Hard" there are six hand-tinted photographs of her sisters posing at the base of a statue of Brant; "Standing on Guard for Thee" is a single shot of the sisters under the statue, and this time Brant's boots and robe are also tinted red. In this series, the streets are peopled, Native peopled.

Another hand-colored photograph in this series is "The Iroquois Is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society." The triptych reveals the photographer's smiling mother in her kitchen beneath a hair dryer. On the surface it is a playful image of the simple dailiness of living. Her mother is caught au naturel, unposed. The shots are framed on black mat, into which are inscribed Iroquoian beadwork symbols. This triptych in particular stands deliberately at odds with Edward Curtis' and others' depiction of "the Native," which generally portrayed the Indian unnaturally, a reflection of the photographers' needs and preconceptions.

Beyond this, though, the photograph raises questions about certain aspects of contemporary Iroquois life. On one hand, Niro has written that the photograph "is a play on anthropological notions. It is one of those sentences that I have heard all my life. I wanted to make fun of the acceptance of what other people say about the society that I come from."

"Mohawks in Beehives," 1991, hand-tinted photograph
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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
However, she goes on to write:

Since I come from a reserve where domestic violence is high, I wanted to ask, "If we are a matriarchal society why does all this violence happen? Why doesn't anyone put a stop to it and really make our society a matriarchal society?" 2

The interplay of the personal and the political, the mixing of the minutiae of daily life with the broader forces that impact that life, is one of the underlying structures of Niro's work. This structure also emerges in the six-panel piece called In Her Lifetime (1992). Featuring one of her sisters, the panels present photographs and a third-person narration about what is going on in the life of the subject. The first two panels depict a smiling figure turned somewhat away from the camera, apparently thinking about her youth, but in the two center panels the figure faces the camera (and the viewer) with thoughts less sanguine. In the fourth panel, a close-up, the character realizes that "Native issues would never be resolved in her lifetime." In the last two panels (actually flipped images of the first two) the figure is "back to the immediate," thinking about Christmas, her kids, and that "Friday was just a day away."

"The Rebel,"  1991, hand-tinted photograph
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This Land Is Mime Land (1992) is Niro's most elaborate achievement to date. Comprised of over a dozen triptychs, the panels disclose the artist through two self-portraits flanking a photograph of a family member. (The family photographs are both contemporary and from her "family archives"; the contemporary photograph is sepia-toned). One self-portrait shows her in street clothes; in the other she is dressed in a costume: as a robed and bewigged judge in "Judge Me Not"; as Elvis in "Love me Tender"; as Marilyn Monroe in "500 Year Itch." Niro's use of family photographs reveals that identity is multi-faceted, and includes daughter, mother, aunt. The photographs in street clothes show the individuality of the self, while the costumed poses offer ironic commentary on the dominant culture. "In my work I am conscious of contemporary living, and thought, but am also aware of history - lost and re-invented. Western icons are a part of everyone's life but we all come to realize these icons from different perspectives." 3
Niro's multiple-paneled works create a narrative through both continuity of image and through juxtaposition, the latter through a montage effect. The images are meant to be "read" in sequence, like a film. Her images are carefully structured to produce this narrative effect. In 1985 she wrote: "Photography is an extension of my art work in that it captures another dimension which is often not achievable in paintings. As I am a designer at heart, I strive for artistic expression through a combination of imagination and photographic manipulation." 4

In addition to her photography and other work, Niro has co-curated From Icebergs to Iced Tea at the Thunder Bay Art Centre. Her work is in the collections of the Laurentien Art Centre, Sudbury, Ontario, the Canada Council, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, both in Ottawa. She has also received commissions for her poster and mural work. Further, her films include It Starts With a Whisper and Honey Moccasin.

Niro was born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1954, and now lives in Brantford, Ontario. She has studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts, Durham College, and the Ontario College of Art. We talked at the American Indian Community House in New York City in February, 1995, and at the Native American Film and Video Festival at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in September.

LA: You've said that in In Her Lifetime (1991) you've tried to reflect one day in the character's life in the series of photographs. You've also included some text in each photograph.

SN: I wanted to use very simple imagery. I also wanted to create a very simple narrative, but it always comes down to the bottom line. I'll read the piece to give you an idea. The first image reads: "In her younger years she was so carefree laughing, singing, dancing." It's an image of a woman, one of my sisters actually, looking quite happy, with a carefree expression. The second image reads: "She would look out to the horizon and let her thoughts drift out with the never-ending tide." At this point she is turning a little bit away from the camera. In the third panel the text reads: "As maturity set in, she would become depressed over the fact that soap operas have no endings, some country music reminded her of soggy cornflakes, she could never find the matching sock to the one she held in her hand . . . and." With this image I wanted to create a very domestic, everyday, ordinary kind of situation; but at the same time it expresses not huge problems, but they're indicative of that sort of ongoing routine that never ends.

"Tip of Canada," 1994, hand-tinted photograph

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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
The next panel continues: "Native issues would never be resolved in her lifetime." So she is going through her life, a very ordinary type of life, but there is an underlying problem that will be there regardless of how long you live and how many Indian people there are. Certain issues will never be resolved. She could live until a hundred and fifty and they would still be there. Then she has to bring herself back into the ordinary situation again, which leads to the bottom line of the story: "She would give herself a shake and realize Christmas was six months away, the kids would be out of school soon," and then the final panel: "and Friday was just a day away." She's bringing herself back into reality, and even though it's a boring reality she still has to bring herself back to it.

LA: There's an interplay between everyday life and the broader political issues.

"Red Heels Hard," 1991, black and white photograph

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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

SN: I think so, even though I'm not a political person. I'm not one to go and rally and protest and I really don't know the big issues. I can guess at them because I'm taking my information from mass media sources, so I have to condense it to a point where I try to understand it, but I don't think I'll ever understand a lot of it. At the same time, it's always there, that whole process of trying to figure out what's going on, like who's deceiving me. There's always that deceptive questioning going on. So it acts like a wave, and then it has to come back to the very beginning again, like a wave would go out and come back.

LA: Did you try to do that in the placement of the five panels? The first panel is a reverse of the last one, and the second is the reverse of the fourth. In the middle panel you have a close-up of the figure looking directly into the camera.

SN: Yes, that's exactly what I tried to do. I tried to create a wave-effect so that it peaks in the center panel and then goes back out again.

LA: This work, for example, has a narrative dimension both in the imagery and the text. Do you generally attempt to get that dimension into your work?

SN: I don't necessarily work toward that but sometimes it just happens. It's like an idea will come to me quickly and then I use it. Other pieces I have to really work toward, but this one just happened -- a stroke of luck!

LA: Many of your pieces are triptyches or multiple panel shots. Do you consider yourself more intuitive or do you structure what you're doing ahead of time?

SN: I think that I'm unconscious and conscious at the same time. I'm always thinking about stuff, but in a very subconscious way. So I don't necessarily say to myself, "How will I do this?" It's not math to me; it's something that I'm thinking about and then if I start getting an idea, it starts working itself out once I start on it. It's not something where I say I'm going to do this and then I'm going to do that. It sort of evolves into a piece. The series This Land is Mime Land evolved from an idea. It was a very simple idea, but then once I started working on it, it just kept growing and growing. If I'm doing a series like Mime Land, I usually shoot five or six shots to the one I'll use. Sometimes it's surprising that when I first look at the negatives I don't think they are going to be very interesting, but when I start re-examining them something starts happening. I guess the creative forces take over and you start to put one image with another.

LA: Maybe we could take a look at some of This Land is Mime Land. Generally speaking, how did this particular series of triptyches develop?

SN: Well, it happened after Mohawks and Beehives. You know, I wanted to put myself into the work and I wanted to work with contemporary imaging. That's where the costumes came in. I went to a costume place and rented a bunch of costumes and then started putting on them on and it was like a masquerade. That's where Mine Land came from because I felt like putting on makeup and posing.

LA: You also play on my, this land is mine.

SN: Exactly. This land is my land, mime land.

LA: In each triptych in the series there is one hand-tinted photograph of you in a costume on the left. The middle panel is a sepia-toned photograph, some old family photographs and others more contemporary. In the right-hand panel is a self-portrait in regular clothes. Some of the costumed Shellys come from pop culture, like Elvis ("Love Me Tender"), Marilyn Monroe ("500 Year Itch"), or Star Trek ("Final Frontier").

SN: I wanted to use the costumes I could fit into. So that was Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and the Star Trek figure. I think that's also indicative of what they rent at costume places, the pop-culture icons. Those are the costumes they had at this place anyway. Then the rest I just invented, like the Mohawk worker ("Mohawk Worker"), or the ballerina in "Survivor," and "North American Welcome" where I'm the Statue of Liberty. It starts feeling kind of schizophrenic because you're putting on these different disguises but it was like I could put on these other personalities. It's something that I usually don't do.

LA: You mentioned about the use of Marilyn Monroe that, "Marilyn is compared to 'Mother' and reflects on the artist becoming a triangle of social and historical dilemma, feminist discourse." 5 Could you expand on that a bit?

SN: It's hard because this work is three years old, and at the time I'm doing it I can kind of construct all these big ideas, like you go through the social and psychological process of creating a work, but the Marilyn Monroe was, I think, one of the very first images that I was working with in this series. I was bringing out how Marilyn is always held up as the great beauty, and how the beauty she possessed is way beyond anything a lot of people I know could ever attain or even come close to. Then, at the same time, I was thinking about some similarities, how my mother and Marilyn would have been the same age, and how they both lived in North America, but at the same time they're so different that there's no connection there at all. There's nothing there that draws a connecting line between Marilyn Monroe and my mother. So when I was working on that piece, I had all these thoughts going through my head about the idea of ideal beauty and the place of women in society and then there's me, even further removed than my mother is.

LA: All of the middle panels are women except for the one with your father.

SN: Well, I've noticed that in my family pictures, there are more women in the old photographs than there are men, and there's only a couple of my father. There's more of grandmothers, aunts, that sort of picture. That's pretty interesting to me, too. Why are there more pictures of females than males? But this isn't the whole show. There's about five pieces missing out of it and he's in another one as well.

LA: The Mohawks in Beehives series (1991) also uses multiple panels and hand-coloring. "The Iroquois is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society" is one of the works in the series, a three-panel piece which shows your mother at home under a hair dryer. How did the series develop?

SN: The Mohawks in Beehives was created in March of '91, after Oka and the Gulf War and February, which is a crazy month of the year because there's that winter blues feeling. Everybody's trying to fight the depression that lingers over that month. So I thought up Mohawks and Beehives as a way of bringing a bit of control into my life and the people around me; the control is really a state of liberation, a freedom in expressing ourselves. It was liberating in the fact that we just allowed ourselves to act, to be flamboyant and outrageous, because you're usually in situations where you have to know the rules and the protocol and know how to act in public. But when you're with your sisters you can give yourself license to be as obnoxious as you like, especially if you're going to be out attacking the rest of the world. So that's what we did on this day. We invaded downtown Brantford [Ontario]. All these pictures are from that one day. We got dressed up and stepped outside of our own personalities and created alter egos.

LA: On the framing mat you have designs incised both on Mime Land and Mohawks and Beehives series. Could you talk about the function of the incisions on the mat?

SN: In that series I tended to use a more traditional design, but it's a very basic design, and I just wanted to incorporate that into the work. But with This Land is Mine Land I decided to invent my design as I went into it because I think you have to look at the traditional, but at the same time you always have to stay inventive. In Mime Land, because I'm dealing with both contemporary and historical presences, I also wanted to deal with a cultural signifier. In my other work, I've used a beadwork design and I wanted to continue using that same sort of design, but I wanted to incorporate a more original, more contemporary one in the mat.

LA: How did you become interested in photography?

SN: Photography has always been a mystery to me. It's one of those things where, as a kid, I looked at a photograph and wondered how it was done because it was like magic. As I got older and started taking photography classes, the magic was resolved in my mind, and I started realizing I could take my own photographs. That in itself was quite empowering, having that knowledge. And once you get that knowledge, you can do anything you want with it.

LA: What camera and film do you use?

SN: I have a T90 Canon and I usually have a 100 and 400 Tmax, but I'm not really particular. I'm not really fussy about the kind of film or anything like that that I use. I always figure that I have to work with the materials that I have so I don't really get caught up in the technical part of it. I think you just have to leave yourself open.

LA: James Patten writes that your photographs deal with the construction of the self in Western society. Your work "questions the validity of white society's images of First Nations' people. At the same time, her work negates the construction of a pure native self-identity as ultimately creating yet another unrealistic stereotype. As a First Nations woman, Niro is especially sensitive to how both white and native social values control and manipulate women." 6 Do you think your work is trying to break down sort of both these poles of stereotypes?

SN: Yes, because I think a lot of times Indian people end up stereotyping themselves. They, like [Shawnee-Cayuga poet] Barney Bush was saying at the reading, buy into the mushy, gushy image that is acceptable and, you know, it's safe. Some people think that to be Indian, you have to do certain things, but I'm just saying that you're Indian no matter what you do, but you have to decide what you want to do and you have to ask questions, like, am I doing something because it's expected of me to do, or I am doing it because I really believe this and it's really a part of me? So I'm always questioning that, saying, "Am I being truthful to myself? How much a part of what I do is part of my psychology?" So I'm always thinking about that.

LA: Your work tries to explore those questions?

SN: I'm always aware of what I'm looking for and it's always like I'm looking through a fog. So even if I'm finishing work, I'm never really certain about what I've found, but I'm always wading through something. I guess it's the wading process that's probably the most interesting.

LA: Your work has been called "a bold assertion of selfhood rather than a search for identity." 7

SN: If you're searching for your identity, that sounds kind of hopeless, doesn't it? It just seems to have a connotation that you're lost or you're trying to find your way back to someplace. I think it relates to stereotyping, so instead of accepting what people say you should be, I'm questioning why can't I be like I am, why can't I like parts of other things in contemporary society? Regardless of how Indians are viewed, as being very isolated and alienated, we still watch TV, we read the papers, we listen to music. There are many other commonalities with the dominant culture that I probably wouldn't want to live without and exclude myself from.

LA: What was the reaction to your early work? Were people confused because it didn't seem to be "Indian photography"?

SN: Before this newer work here? People would respond, "What the hell? What is this?" Sometimes they just don't get it right away, and that's fine with me because by the time I finish a piece and by the time it's hanging on a wall, I'm usually doing something else. My father doesn't understand my stuff and I think, well, if my father doesn't understand it, why should anybody else?

LA: Maybe we could talk about your art training. You also paint and do graphics, but you're best known for photography.

SN: I was always an artist. I started out in graphics because I was in a city that had a community college with graphic art. I thought I'd take a graphic arts course but I hated it. But they also had within the course a photography section and that's the part I really liked. I do painting and I've done some sculpture. I kind of go in a circle. I do a lot of different things. I don't necessarily stick to one medium because I think everything is so exciting. It's too exciting to stay with one thing.

LA: Do you think that the triptych or the multiple-image format offers you more possibilities in what you're trying to express?

SN: I think the triptyches are very animated. If you start following the line of the imagery, it creates a feeling of movement, and if you start looking at the images, it tries to create a dialogue. I think that's the part that's most interesting and exciting for me because you can start feeling that rhythm in the work. It creates a continuity that I like, that feeling of that rhythm.

LA: So in a sense, even in the stills, you're creating movement.

SN: I think so. In the piece "Red Heels Hard" [6 panels,1991] there's a definite storyline in the action. It's like a very short movie. It's like a video.

LA: Speaking of film, you did It Starts With a Whisper in 1992.

SN: I had a partner in this film, Anna Gronau. She is an experienced film maker and we co-produced, co-wrote, and co-directed it. It was really made for the end of 1992 when a lot of people at the time were making art pertaining to the issues of Columbus. I didn't want to make a painting or do something that would be up stuck in a closet and forgotten about it. I wanted to do something that would really be contemplative of the year, but at the same time could have a life of its own afterwards. It was designed so that it would be shown New Year's Eve of 1992, and it was designed so that the screening of the film would end at midnight, so we'd catapult ourselves into the rest of the history of the world. The story is about a young Iroquoian girl, Shanna, who's crossing a threshold from being a girl into being this woman. She's questioning her existence and place in the world. She doesn't know how to go about living a happy life knowing all the atrocities that have happened. Then she meets with an elder toward the end of the film and he advises her she has to think about these things. It was originally shot in 16mm but it's transferred to video now.

LA: Maybe we could talk in some detail about the film. You started with Shanna's narration about a tribe that was nearly wiped out but who were assimilated with the Cayugas. Why did you start the film with this historical framework?

SN: With that narration I started describing the Tutelos, who lived around a part of the Grand River, because I think many of the stories that you see in film festivals, or any kind of festivals about stories, try to remember history and have us learn, and relearn, that history. If you make an effort to try to piece little things in your own memory together eventually those memories will become whole and you can feel that the past makes sense to you.

Also, I wanted to reinforce the notion that Iroquois people weren't as bloodthirsty as history portrays us. We were quite willing to accept different ideas, and in this particular case the Tutelos were absorbed into the Six Nations or Iroquois society out of generosity. They had specific beliefs and specific ceremonies and the Iroquois acknowledged the fact and respected that, so the Iroquois were quite willing to bring them in. That's one of the reasons why that was put in there.

LA: We first meet Shanna as she is walking through nature, dressed in traditional clothing. On the soundtrack, voices of the past are calling her and voices of the present urge her on. She's asking herself questions, too, in a voice-over, like, "How do you go forward when so much has been lost?" Then, the action jumps to the present. What was going on with that opening sequence?

SN: Well, the opening is in direct contrast to what happens later on, and it concerns people who feel that they are responsible for retracing certain steps and who try to see what is gone, what is lost. Then, once you acknowledge that things are gone, that you will never get back some things, you also acknowledge that as a contemporary person you still want to be a part of today. I think many people are in the schizophrenic position where they are never going to get those things back from the past, but are also in a position where they are always searching.

Those particular voices at this point in the film are from the three women who come later on, and represent spirits. If you try to retrace things you become aware that there are actual people that made the beadwork, that made the songs, and that these are organic creations from people's labor. But at the same time, the inspiration comes from something other than just the fact that you can do these things. It has to come from some place and that's what those voices are implying, that even though we have fingers and we can glue and sew, and that there is still some kind of "divine" in a good work, there is something else beyond that.

LA: Your images of beadwork are like a frame for the narrative. After the opening scenes of Shanna in nature you cut to the urban scene, where the aunts appear like magic in characteristically extravagant clothes.

SN: Niro garb! I think that part was a bit over done. I look at it now and I think, "Do they really need those things in their hair?"

LA: They do have a spiritual, magical presence. They materialize in their car from nowhere.

SN: Right. I think we all like to feel we have ancestors who are guardian angels or ancestors who are looking over us. Even if it might be a fantasy, it's something that you like to rely on.

LA: These ancestors are very contemporary in there dress and actions.

SN: They are. Shanna thinks they are stupid, they bug her, they get on her nerves and all that sort of thing, but what they are actually doing is focusing on her. They are more aware of her than she thinks. She feels they are not paying any attention to her but they are. She feels they'll never know what she is talking about, while in fact, they themselves have gone through what she is going through and are cushioning her journey, trying to have her take it less seriously.

LA: They go on a road trip, a pilgrimage in a way, and when they arrive at Niagara Falls it's very garish and disorienting. Shanna looks overwhelmed by all the street signs, the neon lights. There is a claustrophobic feeling of the environment enclosing her.

SN: It's a contrast with the Falls itself. You have the junky part of Niagara Falls and then you have the Falls itself. You realize that nothing anybody can put together will ever compare to the Falls. It's one of the seven wonders of the world, and all that other tacky tourist stuff is so trashy in contrast.

LA: At the same time tribal names run through her head, and she has a dream of a conversation with Elijah Harper.

SN: He's the one person that put a stop to the Meech Lake process. Because of him, everything came to a standstill . . . and Canada hated him for it.

LA: He's a revered figure and he dispenses advice to her. What was you intent in the sequence with him?

SN: Well, she goes through a period where she is standing at the Falls and there are actually three threads of voice-over, but they don't come out too clearly. One of them is speaking the tribal names, another one is speaking about important dates that occurred in Western history, like 1066 and 1492, and the third is things like Darwin's Theory and Old Man River. I don't know, the sound mix was not too easy to follow here. Anyway, it's about being seventeen years old and having all these thoughts: Who am I? What am I? What am I going to do? What is it all about? That sort of thing. The Elijah Harper scene is a dream sequence where she comes to the realization that even though she might be feeling guilty about not doing enough, maybe not having a good enough hold in the world, and that she has some responsibility to the world, he tells her, "It's your life, you've got to be happy . . . get on with it, girl." At that point, I guess, she comes of age and realizes that it is her life to live.

LA: After that scene you cut to a fancy motel room with a heart-shaped bed. The aunts are decked out.

SN: Well, in that particular scene, even though they have been trying to influence her, she joins them, but she joins them on her own terms. She dresses up like they are, but she's made it her decision rather than just going along with them.

LA: What struck me in this scene was what looked like a Busby Berkeley dance routine done by the four characters.

SN: I grew up on musicals, the Broadway shows. For a number of years the Hollywood medium has used the Indian, so now the Indian is using the Hollywood medium.

LA: The film ends at Niagara Falls, December 31st, 1992, at 11:55 p.m. They are having a little ceremony at the Falls.

SN: Each one of them is having her own little version of a New Year's Eve celebration. Each one of them is asked to bring something to that ceremony. Somebody brings a pot of tea, somebody else brings a cake that looks like the world. I wish we had a candle on that world, you know. Somebody else brings a poem and Shanna brings her song, so then they all sort of take part in this little ceremony.

LA: Finally, there is a fireworks display, and the fireworks are transformed into an image of a turtle and the celestial tree.

SN: That reverts to the very beginning where the film starts out with the beadwork. That design is on Shanna's leggings as she is walking, and also represents the creation of the world. So, in essence they are celebrating the continuation of life.

LA: Then, 1992 is over, and the character is starting a new year, a new life.

SN: We had a subtitle that said specifically "December 31st, 11:55 p.m., 1992," and the film was shown so that would coincide with real time. The film was made in that year, but because I am an artist I didn't really want to do a painting or photograph so exact that the year would be over and in 10 years I would look at it and say, "Oh, my God, why was I doing that?" I thought, well, the film was the most effective way because I was hoping it would go into the next millennium and continue on despite the fact that it was done then.

LA: The characters of the aunts are your sisters Deborah Doxtater, Beverly Miller, and Elizabeth Doxtater. They are also the models in many of your photographs.

SN: My brother did some of the music. You know the male voice in the beginning? That's my brother, and then my brother-in-law also did some of the music for "I'm Pretty."

LA: You mentioned in an interview that in making this film you weren't concerned about non-Native viewers, that it was a dealing with Native aesthetics and a celebration of Iroquois people. 8 Could you discuss your concept of native aesthetics as it is expressed through your film?

SN: I want to use Indian music. I want to use Iroquois design. I want it to feature Iroquois people. Films like Black Robe and Last of the Mohicans portray Indians in a certain way, showing them as being nasty people. I wanted to emphasize Iroquois art and design. I want to emphasize the fact that a culture does not survive by being nasty. It survives out of the will to be creative, and by being creative it boosts the level of thought. It's not that you want to take over the world. It just happens that you want to create, you want to grow. So, that's where that statement came from.

LA: Do you think that the filmaking experience will have an effect on your photography? Are those two methods of making art exclusive or do you think that one can connect to the other?

SN: Well, it made me appreciate people more in their own specialties or their own areas because, if you don't work in something, you take it for granted so easily. You never give it a second thought. But once you start seeing people work and how they really take what they're doing seriously you can't help but respect their skills. That makes me want to examine even more deeply what I'm doing because the work on the film made me want to question more about why I'm doing something and what I'm trying to do. You know, I just don't want to take any steps for granted anymore.

LA: In the catalog for the Watchful Eyes show you wrote that, "When I started looking at Indian art, the majority of the artists were men and they were looking for heroes and warriors. I started thinking about image-making and representation of women. There were very few women artists and the representation of women that they were portraying were pow-wow images. That imagery was fairy tale like. If we as Indian people are trying to destroy the noble warrior image then we must start portraying the world the way we see it and experience it." 9 Would you just expand on that and talk about how that relates to what you're trying to do?

SN: This goes back to maybe '75 when I started going to different art shows with Indian people. At the time the men outnumbered the women. The images that even the men were doing of women were pretty unrealistic. They wanted to see them with their pow-wow shawls or they wanted to see them as spiritual creatures or buxom beauties. I thought, well, there's no point in really getting angry over this kind of thing because the only thing you can do is start creating work that would fill that void, or start changing the direction. So I started using my family in my work because they're sort of representative. I won't say typical. Who's typical? But to me these family images are the common images that I live with. At the same time, using these basic images was a self-actualization process where, if you start relating to the people you're looking at, and the more images you see of somebody that looks like you, the more you can accept yourself, whereas if you see images of people that you have no connection with and can't relate to, then you're doubting your own presence. You say, "I don't look like that." I thought by using these images of women, it actually creates a welcoming feeling, and it makes other Indian women say, "I can relate to these images." A lot of women have said that to me that they can see their own aunts or their sisters in these images that are up on a gallery wall.


1 Shelley Niro, Gallery Talk, American Indian Community House, New York, New York, Feb. 11, 1995.

2 _____, Artist's Statement, Watchful Eyes: Native American Women Artists (Phoenix, AZ: The Heard Museum, 1994), p. 29.

3 _____, Artist's Statement, Cultural Contrasts: Inner Voices/Outer Images (Stamford, CT: Stamford Museum and Nature Center, 1993), unp.

4 _____, Artist's Statement, "Visions" (Hamilton, Ontario: NIIPA, 1985), p. 35.

5 _____, Artist's Statement, Cultural Contrasts: Inner Voices/Outer Images.

6 James Patten, "Shelley Niro: Sense of Self," Shelley Niro: Sense of Self (London, Ontario: London Regional Art and Historical Museums, 1994), p. 3.

7 Gallery brochure, Gallery of the American Indian Community House, New York, NY, 1995, unp.

8 C. Osmond, "It Starts with a Whisper . . . and a Lotta Hard Work," NIIPA 92 (Fall, 1992): 11.

9 Shelley Niro, Watchful Eyes, p. 29.


Image and Self in Contemporary Native American Photoart, group exhibition, Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1995

Native Images: Native Issues, two-person exhibition, American Indian Community House, New York, NY,1995.

Watchful Eyes: Native American Women Artists, group exhibition, The Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ, 1994.

Sense of Self, solo exhibition, London Regional Art and Historical Museums, London Ontario, 1994.

Works by Shelley Niro, solo exhibition, Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, Niagara Falls, NY, 1994.

Defining Our Realities: Native American Women Photographers, group exhibition, Sacred Circle Gallery, Seattle, WA, 1993.

This Land Is Mime Land, solo exhibition, Ufundi Gallery, Ottawa Ontario, 1992.

Mohawks in Beehives, solo exhibition, Ufundi Gallery, Ottawa Ontario, 1991.

The Language of the Lens, group exhibition, The Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ, 1990.

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