C Magazine


Issue 150

“Shelley Niro: Thinking Of You” and “DARKNESS” — Shelley Niro
by Julian Jason Haladyn

Projected onto screens in a large window at the back of Museum London, Mohawk filmmaker and artist Shelley Niro’s exhibition “Thinking Of You” quietly speaks. The work is only presented at night, meaning those who want to view it must stand outside in the August heat, the quiet sounds of Deshkan Ziibi (Anishinaabemowin for “Antler River”) or the Thames River audible in the background. I assume that for most of the night there are few, if any, people to experience the project. Regardless, it keeps addressing all beings, including the river that is a prominent part of the landscape around the museum. Standing in this context, I wait for the sun to set, for the darkness, so that I can see the work more clearly.

  • Shelley Niro, Where We Come From, 2021, 2-channel digital video; installation view from “Thinking Of You,” 2021, Museum London, curated by Peter Lebel and Matthew Ryan Smith

Two large screens hang in the window. Presented on the left screen are two photographs projected side by side, each given its own space. Changing at regular intervals, the images cycle through two previous photographic series that Niro produced: Resting Place Of Our Ancestors (2019) and Final Moments Thinking Of You (1998).

Resting Place Of Our Ancestors consists of closeup pictures of fossils, presented as large-scale photographs. “I’ve spent many hours looking at different species embedded into rock faces,” Niro writes about these images in a past exhibition statement. “I’ve become attached to the narrative of these small creatures as they went about their daily tranquil lives and suddenly they are now the centrefolds for explaining my own existence as I slither along the edges of this century. These imprints of long gone life unite us all as evidence of where we come from.” This philosophical approach to life is a common quality of much of Niro’s art, from her interest in the cosmos to her exploration of the Earth as a history.

Final Moments Thinking Of You is a series of twelve photographs in which the four basic elements— water, fire, air, and land—are represented in groups of three images per element. The first two consist of relatively close-up pictures of water and fire, which appear almost like patterns at a distance. For land there are images of the ground in a wooded area, as if one is looking down. For air the artist is a bit more poetic, showing two images of the sky, as if one is looking up, and one picture includes a white, patterned material band that gives the impression of looking at the sky through a curtained window. The title of the current exhibition is taken from this series, minus the catastrophically toned “final moments.”

On the right-hand screen of “Thinking Of You,” Niro presents a handheld video of a river—an approximately half-minute clip that is looped, without sound. Shot from the banks of the river and using trees as a framing device, the scene shows rapidly moving waters at a relatively short distance. The context of this particular space is not shown, making it impossible to identify the specific river—although I am sure that detail does not matter to the Antler River, as it mirrors the movements on-screen. It is hard to claim that the video is without sound as I stand hearing water and listening to geese flying overhead. As birds fly by, their shadows move across the glass of the large window and the images presented on both screens. These birds become part of the work.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the horrifying discovery this past year of more than 1,300 unmarked graves containing the remains of children who died in former Canadian residential schools. Niro’s title, “Thinking Of You,” is in part a gesture toward a collective act of thinking about these children. This continuing story of colonization is also part of the work—as are the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing environmental and ecological disasters around the world. Experiencing this work outside, it is hard not to see the world as part of Niro’s project—or at least what the work is in dialogue with.

As a “constellation” of the exhibition, Niro’s poem “DARKNESS” is presented at the nearby SATELLiTE Project Space. Shown in the window as white text on a black background, the title indicates the poem is speaking to an experience of darkness through the artist’s memories “about living on the / Six Nations Reserve / as a kid.” She describes “being outside / at night / in darkness”—which I read standing in downtown London at night, surrounded by lights. The poem addresses the role of the dark in the city, which for Niro is Brantford, where “Street lights are constantly on” and all the inhabitants, not just humans, suffer from “light pollution.” She ends by lamenting: “I miss the darkness.” These words are on my mind while I stand and watch the projections of “Thinking Of You” behind Museum London, thinking about having to wait for the dark before the work can communicate. And while there may be less people during this time, there certainly is a lot of life to be experienced.

In a contemporary world that overprivileges the individual, Niro’s project is not simply thinking of us in particular, but rather addressing all beings as they exist within a dialogue. If we imagine “Thinking Of You” as a dialogue between the Antler River and the images in Niro’s works, we begin to see ourselves not as the centre of this narrative, not the “you” in the title, but rather as part of a larger conversation with the world that the artist wants us to recognize.