Exhausted and distraught over legal troubles, Rebecca Belmore - the Vancouver-based Anishinabe artist who represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2005 - has staged a performance piece that ended with her shouting "I quit!"
The exclamation, coming from one of the country's most prominent artists, has shaken the Canadian visual-arts community, which is now rushing to her defence, offering both moral and financial support.
The piece, performed last Saturday in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, was called Worth "(-Statement of Defence". It was created in response to an ongoing but escalating lawsuit filed against Ms. Belmore by her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi, who runs the Pari Nadimi Gallery in Toronto.
Watch the performance
Originally launched in 2004, the lawsuit was revived in Ontario Superior Court in June when Ms. Nadimi filed an amended statement of claim against Ms. Belmore seeking more than $750,000 in damages.
Ms. Nadimi alleges breach of contract in Ms. Belmore's decision to leave the gallery, and wrongful interference: The statement of claim alleges Ms. Belmore stopped a sale of her work Megaphone to the National Gallery, which was "embarrassing to the Art Gallery, damaging to Ms. Nadimi's professional reputation and caused her significant mental distress."
In a draft statement of defence, to be filed Thursday or Friday, Ms. Belmore argues she had the right to refuse the sale and did so for "personal artistic reasons."
The statement of claim also alleges that at the time Ms. Belmore left the Nadimi Gallery, Ms. Nadimi was in active negotiations for nearly $1.1-million worth of sales revenue in connection with Ms. Belmore's works.
Ms. Belmore's legal advisers call that claim preposterous.
Jack Adelaar, the Vancouver lawyer who is co-ordinating Ms. Belmore's legal representation, said he will file a counterclaim seeking $100,000 "for intentional infliction of emotional distress / mental distress / mental suffering."
None of the allegations has been proven in court.
Mr Adelaar said the battle began in 2006 when the two got into a dispute over a payment for a piece of art. He said many of the issues were resolved out of court, so when the amended statement of claim was filed in June, Ms. Belmore was "surprised and upset."
With this Friday's deadline for filing a statement of defence looming, Mr. Adelaar said: "She's incredibly emotional. … She's fairly distraught about this and she can't believe what's happening."
Ms. Belmore declined a request for an interview, writing in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail: "I am on hold for now. I'm exhausted."
Nadimi did not return calls from The Globe and Mail; her lawyer said he would not comment on matters before the court.
Ms. Belmore's case is attracting widespread interest from Canada's visual-arts community. Glenn Alteen, with Vancouver's Grunt Gallery, has organized an online effort to raise money for her legal costs.
"If she winds up owing $750,000 … it's going to be very hard for her," Mr. Alteen said. "I don't think she's made that much money selling work in her career so far."
In Toronto, lawyer Paul Bain, who works extensively in the art world and represents artists, is helping to organize an online auction to raise funds for Ms. Belmore, with artworks donated by other artists such as Kelly Mark.
"Various artists who feel what she's doing is important have offered to give her artwork to do with as she may," Mr. Bain said Wednesday. "Many can't afford to write cheques, so it's a way for them to get involved in this battle." Mr. Bain said some dealers and galleries were also offering support to Ms. Belmore.
In the performance piece, Ms. Belmore sat cross-legged in front of a garbage can and a sign reading "I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars To My People."
After some time, she scrubbed the sidewalk in front of her, and laid out the bed covering from her performance piece Wild, lay down on top of it, got up, wrapped it up, and presented it to Daina Augaitis, chief curator at the VAG. She then yelled "I quit!"
Mr. Bain, who speaks with Ms. Belmore regularly, said he doesn't believe she will actually stop making art. "I think she was feeling powerless and frustrated. Staging a performance was the best way for her to vent and get some points across."
Mr. Adelaar said he hopes the way artists have mobilized to come to her defence will move her back into a positive frame of mind.