Rebecca Belmore’s work is concerned with voice, particularly of those that are silenced. It also amplifies those that need a broader audience, those who are displaced and who continually have to remake their home wherever they can.
March 10, 1990, marked the beginning of the so-called Oka Crisis. The crisis ruptured the thin veneer of moderate Canadian society and exposed the festering wound of colonialism beneath. A standoff was sparked by the decision by the mayor of the French-Canadian village of Oka to expand a golf course from nine to eighteen holes. For the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of nearby Kanehsatà:ke, whose land rights had been continually degraded since the 1700s, it was the last straw. The women formed a line to protect the stand of trees that grew over burial grounds of years past. This line escalated into a bitter seventy-eight-day protest. During their defense of what little remained of their territories, the voices of Indigenous peoples were drowned out or blatantly manipulated by mainstream media.
Belmore saw this as an opportunity to speak back. One year later, in 1991, in time for Canada’s embarking on a number of activities to “celebrate” 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, she oversaw building a massive megaphone out of finely inlaid wood veneer with decorative finishes of moose hide and skillfully cut leather lashing. The megaphone then toured for more than a year to communities across Canada, visiting those who needed it most. Its large size echoed the degree of tone deafness toward the dire issues facing Indigenous communities to become a transitory monument. It became a means to amplify the voices of the dispossessed and enlarge the platform for growing agency among Indigenous peoples.
In Athens, Belmore, born in Upsala, Ontario, in 1960, has made another monument to the transitory, also out of local materials. A tent—increasingly a long-term home for refugees and migrants—has been hand carved in marble. It is testament to what, for many, is a state of perpetual emergency, a makeshift retreat. The form has its root in other vernacular shelters as well. “The shape of the tent is, for me, reminiscent of the wigwam dwellings that are part of my history as an Indigenous person,” Belmore explains. Wigwams (wiigiwaam in Anishinaabemowin), traditionally constructed of bentwood of young trees and covered with birch bark, are a rather ingenious solution for building with the materials available at hand. They also enabled a people who were in constant motion to make their home wherever necessary.