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Object Lessons in Two Parts

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Red River Valley clay gumbo being formed as beads by Rebecca Belmore for trace, 2014. Photograph: Theo Pelmus. Courtesy the artist.

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We think of the object, but then we immediately think of the experience related to the object: searching it out or encountering it by chance, possibly holding it, even acquiring it, perhaps (accidentally, or not so accidentally) breaking it; but above all we think of keeping it safe, by any means whether in our mind or finding a secure place for it, anything to keep it out of danger. But still, we think of the object. And when investing our thoughts in the object it has no past or future, only the present in which we hold it.


When the yet-to-be-opened James Armstrong Richardson International Airport was visited by the Queen of England in July 2010, she sat there looking out onto the tarmac, observing the unfinished edges of the building, the never-ending prairie horizon, and the Winnipeg sky whose clouds had parted, it seemed, simply for her pleasure … as she sat in the unforgiving glow of the terminal, in her lavender overcoat and matching hat, Queen Elizabeth II signed a letter she’d written to the future children of Manitoba. The letter was immediately sealed in a glass time capsule, where it will remain until the year 2060. In 2060 the Queen will be long dead. In 2036, which is the year considered in the most recent statistical data, one in five Manitobans will be of Indigenous decent, a marked jump from the ten percent of the province currently made up by Aboriginal peoples. Currently half of the Indigenous population in Manitoba is under 21. So this letter, written from the Queen to the province’s future children, who will — if the math holds — most likely be close to fifty percent of the overall population under 21, at least twenty percent of whom will be Indigenous, better be damned good. Until 2060 the letter will be kept safe, an object sealed and housed for passengers flying through to guess at its content. What might that letter say? She’s not a chatty woman. Maybe it simply states, “I hope things are better.” Maybe she apologises for over a century of mistreatment of the province’s Indigenous people by the federal government? Maybe it will be a lurid tale of debauchery as a young Royal at The Front during the war years, calling for more action? I’m sure it’s none of these things.

Part of her visit to the city included a tour of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), the first national museum established since 1967 (Canada’s Centennial year) and the only national museum in Canada that is not located in our country’s capital region. During construction of the CMHR, news reports surfaced concerning the plethora of artifacts unearthed on the site – the historically important meeting point of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, known as The Forks. Makeshift archeological digs were put into place to excavate the artifacts. Over four years more than 400,000 objects were uncovered. In a 2013 press release outlining keys factors from the dig, The CMHR states the archeologists found:

... at least five completely new and previously unseen types of ceramic pottery, which seem to represent a period of rapid cultural change that took place over 200 to 300 years, between 1100 and 1400 C.E. This suggests different groups from a wide geographic area met here to interact, trade, form alliances and marry – resulting in the evolution of a “homegrown” localized pottery type distinct from those of Saskatchewan or North Dakota. The pottery findings may also refute the theory that Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people did not move into The Forks until the fur-trade era, and instead suggest they had been using the site for hundreds of years previously, along with many other groups.

These artefacts were, in some round about way, left there for the future children of Manitoba.

Rebecca Belmore in her studio with clay gumbo from the Red River Valley.
Rebecca Belmore in her studio with clay gumbo from the Red River Valley.


In her work, which includes performance, photography, as well as film and video installations and more recently sculpture, Rebecca Belmore an Anishinaabe artist, makes visible both historical and ongoing injustices perpetrated against marginalised populations — in particular women, and Indigenous people. Belmore was commissioned to create a permanent artwork for the CMHR and spurred by the discovery of those 400,000 objects in the earth below the museum; she devised her piece — Trace (2014). Installed in the Indigenous Perspectives Gallery of the Museum, Trace consists of 14,000 hand-pressed clay beads made from the gumbo pulled from the Red River Valley next to the CMHR. Strung together in many undulating strands to resemble the shape of a blanket held in its middle, the way a piece of fabric may be lifted for the great reveal of what is, temporarily, hidden beneath, the thousands of clay beads stretch upward three floors (or cascade downward, depending on your vantage point). Belmore facilitated a number of hands-on workshops in Winnipeg for the public to come and make beads by pressing the wet clay into their palms, leaving imprints of their fingers around the oblong clumps. Following the making of these objects the clay was fired unglazed. The result is that no two beads in this piece are identical in shape or colour, which resembles the truest example of the Red River Valley gumbo — a sort of dirty pink. The form of the installation, the blanket, also carries meaning when considering the history of smallpox introduced to North American Indigenous populations by colonial forces. The Hudson’s Bay Company, a crown corporation, traded wool blankets purposely infected with disease as a means of eradicating the population. These blankets were traded for beaver pelts to make top hats and other luxury items, which carried with them a history of violence. The river is a witness to this violence, not an object in its delivery. Belmore knows this, and so she works with the material of witness until it becomes object — one that has been sought out, acquired, broken into something to keep safe, to invest our thoughts in, a giant canopy onto which we read the past, project the present, and speculate the future. Thanks to Belmore, the blanket is re-imagined as a monument.

I have no idea what the Queen of England wrote to the future children of Manitoba, but what I do know is that Rebecca Belmore’s response to that letter is 14,000 closed fists.

Rebecca Belmore, trace, 2014, steel, fired clay, 40′ x 20′. Photo: Ian McCausland. Courtesy the artist and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Rebecca Belmore, trace, 2014, steel, fired clay, 40′ x 20′. Photo: Ian McCausland. Courtesy the artist and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.