Spotlight on Shelley Niro: Return to Life

KWAG respectfully acknowledges that we are located on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron (Neutral), Anishnaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples. The Haldimand Tract, land promised to Six Nations, includes six miles on each side of the Grand River.


As I reflect on this inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I think about the complicated histories of cultural collections. All collecting institutions share an underlying colonial foundation. From their beginning, collections that eventually became available to a viewing public were tools deployed by the ruling body or the modern state, in part for the public to recognize themselves and their role within something larger. This was a more straightforward task before mass migration and the acts of colonial empires drastically altered the public body, particularly in the West. Today, however, many institutions find themselves with collections that do not fully represent a public coming to explore themselves, their ancestors and their worldviews.  

Instead of letting these spectres haunt the present or the future, we must think of our collections differently to amend past faults and limits. A collection can be a living repository of relations, a documentation of support and an expression of life lived, as art is not separate from an experience of being. Through our collections, we hope to appreciate a diverse story of human relations, with each other and with every other living thing throughout the world.  

Looking through the collection, I am drawn to a photograph by Shelley Niro. Niro is a renowned and beloved multi-disciplinary artist and member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk. Return to Life was one of two works that Niro created in response to an invitation to participate in the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery’s 2004 exhibition River: Grand!, itself part of a larger exhibition series titled The Grand River Chronicles. This series presented projects with strong connections to the Grand River and the regions it winds through. Major themes such as romanticized visions, traditional depictions of the landscape, and the Six Nations perspective on the complex and often neglected history of the region all surfaced across these important exhibitions. 

Shelly Niro's Return to Life is a black and white photograph offering a glimpse of the Grand River from beneath a silhouetted tree canopy on a wild shoreline Shelley Niro (Canadian-Mohawk, b. USA 1954). Return to Life, 2004. Fibre based print, 101.6cm x 76.2cm. 
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery Collection. Gift of the Artist, 2009. © Shelley Niro. Photo: Shelley Niro.


Return to Life is alive indeed. The great Grand River flows, an unending spring of energy and sustenance. A tree stands tall along the shore, its thick canopy wrapping the undergrowth in cool shade. Across the river, small turtles bathe in the heat of the sun, safe on their isolated islands. It is not a far leap to view excerpts of the scene as microcosms of the Turtle Island creation story. Another thought reorients us toward a Turtle Clan autobiography and a reminder that the place and its meaning are inseparable.

Niro’s work has much to teach and inspire within us all. As an object, it is a wonderfully sensual photograph full of rich tonality and texture. As an image, it directs us toward an appreciation and respect for the land, for traditional knowledge, and our individual responsibilities within larger structures, among other themes. But as a work from our Permanent Collection, it can also be a portent for the power of responsible collecting. Galleries across the country face gaps in their collection. How we move forward to address these gaps, to reconcile the shameful histories of colonialism and attend to the burden of absence with attention and intention, is essential for any cultural organization seeking truth on the path toward true equity and representation. 

- Darryn Doull, Curator, KWAG