Michael Belmore. Bowing to the Territory

Anishinaabe artist Michael Belmore, who grew up in the region north of the Great Lakes, uses sculpture and installation to explore the limit states of materials, particularly copper and stone. He employs his time and techniques to establish these materials as figures of territory, particularly the territory of his birth.

By situating evolution within a geological perspective vaster than that of human occupation, he brings back into play intimate relationships to place and history that are specific to his culture, which he positions in opposition to the land-grabbing culture of the colonial economy.

Re-claiming one’s territory

The Great Lakes region is still known today for its rich deposits of native copper, a crystalline form found in its natural state and used by the area’s first inhabitants going back farther than 1 000 years B.C.E. Copper holds great symbolic value for the Anishinaabe; it embodies the blood of the spirits and the superior forces of the Earth, and has long been used in trade between First Nations. By using this material, Belmore perpetuates the tradition while, at the same time, pointing to copper’s essential role in a number of today’s industries: its great conductivity has led to its designation as a critical mineral.

The sculpture Lost Bridal Veil (2015), currently in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, is composed of strips of industrial copper that have been shaped, polished, hammered and punched by hand. Its weathered surface alludes to ancient geological phenomena such as the relief features carved by valleys and watercourses, or territories like the Canadian Shield that were marked by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. The worked metal is also a veil metaphor and is presented as a ceremonial garment celebrating the union of human beings with the Earth and the intimate sense of belonging to the land that lies at the heart of Indigenous cultures. The work is geomorphological inasmuch as it gives form to a corporal presence, one covered by a garment. The original patina of the copper has, moreover, reddish tints that evoke the colour of blood—it points to the vulnerability of humans and the violence inflicted on them.

As its name indicates, Belmore’s sculpture is a lost veil symbolizing the seizure of Indigenous territories by colonial powers. In the Great Lakes region, the signing of the Robinson Treaties (1850) was inextricably bound up with the desire of the province of Canada (currently Québec and Ontario) to carve out a path to the land’s mineral riches. In addition, the Group of Seven painters depicted the region as virgin territory and thereby helped establish it as an icon of Canadian nationalism. Belmore’s use of copper in his work reaffirms Indigenous peoples’ longstanding presence in the territory and the fact that their right to its mineral resources takes precedence, a situation that is also at the core of Indigenous identity.

Living territory

The issues associated with land occupancy and the dynamic narrative of its geological evolution, indeed of its creation, are recurring features in Michael Belmore’s work. Coalescence (2017-2018) is a large-scale installation made up of 24 erratic boulders (i.e. boulders deposited by glaciers) that were carved, fitted together and placed in three national parks. The warm glow of copper inlay on the carved faces, visible in the interstices between the boulders, creates the illusion that the latter are emerging from molten material and constitutes a direct allusion to the formation of terrestrial matter. Over time, the natural oxidation process has dulled the sheen of the copper while the work as a whole has been modified in other ways by the vagaries involved in the slow process of the transformation of matter.

The artist was commissioned to make this work as part of LandMarks 2017/Repère 2017, an initiative spearheaded by Partners in Arts to mark Canada’s 150th birthday. It is now permanently in the Parks Canada Visitors Centre in Churchill on Hudson Bay, a drainage point for the Laurentide Ice Sheet which covers some of the Great Lakes region. Stones arranged in groups of four have also been distributed between the Grasslands National Park (Saskatchewan) and Riding Mountain National Park (Manitoba), celebrating the land’s natural resources and commemorating trade routes where peoples came into contact, or were forced off their land over the course of Canadian history. The presentation at Grasslands National Park marks the southernmost boundary of the ancient icefield and signifies the dispersion of moraine ferried over vast distances by ice sheets whose eventual retreat would shape the drainage basins of the Saint Lawrence River and Hudson Bay.

Additionally, the rounded shapes of the stones allude to the action of water polishing their surfaces and eroding their fracture marks and ridges. For the artist, materials are dynamic forces in creation, acting on the environment and its components. Contrary to the Western idea that objects are inanimate—i.e. resources to be exploited—Indigenous languages and mythologies confer on matter the status of an active entity. Belmore’s work is in symbiosis with the intrinsic qualities of matter; he comes to terms with its natural resistance not only in the carving and buffing stages but also in the work of burnishing and hammering and rolling copper. In the slow shaping process, his actions espouse the natural characteristics of the material and allow themselves to be guided by its prevailing forces. In this respect, his work attests to humility before the transformations that take place naturally on a vast scale over thousands of years and that make all artifacts look paltry by comparison.

Wounded territory

With Édifice, presented in Gatineau in 2019 and exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2021, Belmore shows himself to be concerned with the extractive logic that still governs our relationship to the land.

The work consists of a set of interlocking carved sandstone pieces that resemble the stones used in the construction of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and the Hudson Bay Company’s stores in Montréal and Toronto, and recall the role played by these sites in the process of colonization. Forming a rough square, the stones represent the orthogonal unity of a map and the arbitrary grid imposed on the land. The heavy mass of the whole nonetheless gives shape to the land’s topography, illustrating the discrepancy between the actual territory, its topography and its representation. Developed during the 19th century, the orthogonal map grid lends the territory an apparent scientific objectivity. The carving up of land, which is foreign to the Indigenous experience, is still used in the management of natural resources, particularly their exploitation. Covered in a thin sheet of copper, the stones—aligned in relation to a long cross-cut—create the illusion of a deep glowing groove or channel. The cut in this organization of the territory recalls the geological processes that shape it.

Michael Belmore’s work is humble. Rooted in matter, it attests to human beings’ close interrelationships with the Earth and denounces the impact that colonization has had on matter, copper and stone over the long course of history. In the face of an uncertain future, it foregrounds Anishinaabe skill, narrative and history in order to raise again the great universal questions that pertain to human presence and the challenge of living in harmony with nature and the land.

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