Rebecca Belmore has been on the move the past four years and, at 56, she seems to be readying herself to do so again, this time to Cuba.
The veteran Anishinaabe multidisciplinary artist, winner of a 2013 Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts and, in 2005, the first aboriginal woman ever to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale, has been living with her husband, fellow artist and occasional collaborator Osvaldo Yero, in Montreal since fall 2014. Prior to that, in summer 2012, they relocated to Winnipeg after almost 12 years on the West Coast. The eastward trek came "mainly because Vancouver was becoming too expensive to survive as an artist on an artist's income," Belmore explained on the phone from Montreal.
Winnipeg certainly proved less taxing on the pocketbook. But "the winter conditions there [were] too extreme," prompting the move to Montreal. Admittedly, she said with a laugh, the Quebec winters haven't been much of an improvement. "It's basically about us trying to find a better space … to live together as two artists." Two years on in Montreal, "we're still unsettled and we don't know where we want to end up.
"Perhaps," she said, "Cuba."
Heading to the Caribbean island country is not as radical a notion as one might think. Canada, after all, has had uninterrupted diplomatic ties with the country since the 1959 Castro revolution. Relations are thawing between the United States and Cuba. Yero himself was born there, in 1969, and took his art education at Havana's well-regarded Instituto Superior de Arte before immigrating to Canada in 1997. Belmore, too, did a performance piece, Creation or Death: We Will Win, at the 1991 Havana Biennial.
"We've discussed [Cuba] for many, many years," Belmore acknowledged. "But as one gets older and winter seems colder, it seems more attractive. Plus, Osvaldo's been here for 20 years and I think it's my turn to reciprocate and to allow him to spend some solid, quality time with his own people in his own language and culture."
In the meantime, Belmore has two Canadian appearances on her immediate horizon, both taking place in Toronto. The first, on the evening of Sept. 20, is what one of its organizers describes as a live "fireside chat … debate … dialogue" on-stage at Massey Hall. The first in a projected series of four events running into early 2018, Creative Minds is the brainchild of the Art Gallery of Ontario in partnership with Massey Hall, the CBC and the Banff Centre.
The idea is to get artists from all disciplines together to discuss, unscripted, big contemporary social issues. For the debut, the topic is "art and social change." Belmore will be sharing the stage with the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novelist André Alexis, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Water) and Buffy Sainte-Marie, winner of the 2015 Polaris Music Prize. The panel will be moderated by CBC Radio host Matt Galloway, its appearance prefaced by a performance of "freedom songs" from soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
Belmore is an entirely apt choice, of course. Her performances and installations over the past 25-plus years are nothing if not politically conscious and socially aware, acutely attuned to site and history, to the remembered and the erased. Yet, she confessed she "probably would have shied away from [accepting]" had she been the sole invitee or asked to write a speech. "Being in the company of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Deepa Mehta was encouraging for me," she said. "I felt I'd be more at ease."
"Hopefully, it'll be more of a conversation than an interrogation," she added.
Belmore's second appearance occurs Oct. 1 at the AGO, where she's a participant in the 11th annual Nuit Blanche "contemporary art thing." Belmore and her husband appeared at the first Toronto Nuit Blanche back in 2006, creating the outdoor sculpture freeze from a large block of ice to memorialize the deaths and injuries suffered by First Nations' people abandoned to the cold by police. This time, she's creating indoors, in the gallery's spacious Walker Court. Untitled so far, the project sounds like quintessential Belmore – a blend of performance and installation, it will see her start work at sundown Oct. 1 to fashion a large sculpture-like piece, albeit temporary in nature, that she will finish "just in the nick of time" at sundown Oct. 2.
As of this writing, much of it remained undetermined. Partly because "I'm still negotiating [with the AGO] what I can and cannot do. Being a museum, they have many rules so it's always a challenge to do the work you want to while respecting their guidelines." Partly as well it's because this "is the way I prefer to work, to not make things so definitive at the onset and let them unfold and deal with problems as they appear and hopefully create a decent work."
She added: "I prefer to think of it as labour and art – or the art of labour, the labour of art. I'm looking forward to it … Especially with performance, I've started to think of myself as a worker in the public realm, in public space. I'm trying to align myself with the kind of idea that I'm an artist but still a worker, too."
(Meanwhile, Wanda Nanibush, the AGO's newly appointed assistant curator for Canadian and indigenous art, is including one of Belmore's oldest and most famous creations, Rising to the Occasion, in a retrospective exhibition titled Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-89, opening Sept. 29. Rising – a Victorian ball gown from the front, its bodice adorned with tea saucers, and beaver dam from the rear – was worn by Belmore in 1987 to "commemorate" the Duke and Duchess of York's 1987 tour of Canada.)
By many measures – honours bestowed, solo exhibitions held, invitations received, peer and institutional recognition, media coverage – Belmore would seem to be a successful artist, especially in a country where, in 2010, the average annual income for a professional visual creator was only $25,000. But does she feel that way?
After a pause, she answered with a chuckle: "Well, I don't feel like a failure. How about that? I feel like I've been doing okay … I would say I am a mature artist and I'm quite comfortable doing my job as an artist and making art. So if that's success, I feel good about it … I'm just happy to be able to survive and make a living as an artist. Which is difficult to do in this country. There's not a helluva lot of money out there."
She laughed again. "I can actually go to Cuba without being flush with money."
Does she harbour any great ambitions? The Venice Biennale, as the planet's most prestigious international art exhibition, is often considered a career peak – but not for Belmore who, though she found the 2005 edition "an eye opener and a learning experience," said, career-wise, it wasn't "a big, busting-down-doors making-it into some international world of art." Eleven-plus years later, "it's fading in memory."
"I just want to keep doing good work," she declared. "I don't think art is about being ambitious. To be an artist, it's more about having integrity. Ambition, it's definitely part of the art world. That world can be highly competitive, so you have to be strong enough and good enough to compete because that is the reality … But the good thing today is that there are so many ways to make art. You don't have to be famous … You can contribute to society and take care of yourself. Making art is a way of life, really."
Creative Minds with Rebecca Belmore, André Alexis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Deepa Mehta and Measha Brueggergosman begins at 8 p.m., Sept. 20 at Massey Hall, Toronto. Information: agocreativeminds.ca.
An earlier version of this article stated that Rebecca Belmore was the first aboriginal artist to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale, in 2005. In fact, Edward Poitras, in 1995, was the first aboriginal artist ever to represent Canada at Venice, with Belmore being the first aboriginal woman from Canada at the event. This version has been corrected.