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‘Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch’: Matriarchy, memory, actors and relations

February 22, 2024

The AGH’s largest-ever solo exhibit is a sprawling retrospective of Mohawk artist Shelley Niro’s incredible 40-year career.

Shelley Niro Collection

“The Rebel,” 1987, by Shelley Niro. Hand-tinted gelatin silver print. 

Bert McNair photo “Resting with Warriors,” 2001, by Shelley Niro. Woodcut on wove paper.

Shelley Niro Collection: Chiquita,” 2001, by Shelley Niro. Digital photograph.

NationTalk: Hamilton Spectator – We’ve all heard art is subjective. It’s also in the eye of the beholder. Multi-talented Mohawk artist Shelley Niro knows this. She doesn’t have a favourite piece of her own work, but she understands that others might.

“Every time I finish a work and send it out the door, it has its own life,” Brantford-based Niro said, in an email interview with The Spectator.

“I then begin on the next piece. I get attached to everything and have a bit of withdrawal when that work does leave. So, no, I don’t have a favourite. People are drawn to different pieces and they have their own reasons why. I don’t like to upset the chemistry that surrounds that.”

The first major retrospective exhibition of Niro’s work, spanning four decades and entitled “Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch,” is on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until May 26.

It’s the second stop on a five-gallery, multi-year North American tour. The first was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City in 2023. The AGH version is not only the first Canadian show, but it will also feature new pieces.

“Abnormally Aboriginal,” 2014-2017, by Shelley Niro. Colour inkjet prints on canvas.Shelley Niro Collection.

“For me, this is an amazing chance to look at my work,” she said.

“Some of it I haven’t seen in years. It feels like a discovery. The work itself looks fresh, and not so tired. I was a little afraid to look at it in case things were falling apart and the impact time would have had on the work,” she said.

“Each location will be different for sure. The architecture will give the work different energies and I will see it in a new light. The Hamilton location will mean a lot to me as this is so close to home.”

On Saturday, Niro will join the exhibit’s three curators — Melissa Bennett, AGH senior curator of contemporary art, Greg Hill, independent curator formerly Audain senior curator, Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada, and David Penney, associate director of museum scholarship at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian — in a conversation at the AGH.

The discussion runs from 2 to 3 p.m. and an opening celebration will follow, which will also feature the exhibit “Alex Jacobs-Blum: Living and Lost Connections.”

“Waitress,” 1987, by Shelley Niro. Oil on canvas. Robert McNair photo

Bennett said the AGH came up with the idea to showcase 40 years of Niro’s work. With more than 500 pieces in Niro’s Brantford studio alone, the show took the trio seven years to curate. They created a long list and then narrowed that down to about 70 works (some in series, equating to 136 pieces) in total. Installation took three weeks.

“This is the biggest show the AGH has ever done of a solo artist representation. It’s important to provide this kind of space for local artists. We want Hamilton to be proud,” Bennett said.

“Through our youth outreach, we have school groups coming here to see an Indigenous artist from their region. This show can empower and encourage them to fight for what they want to do in terms of equal rights and fighting against Indigenous stereotypes.”

“Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch” includes the artist’s photography, film, painting, installation, beadwork, sculpture and mixed media practice. Thematically, the exhibit is divided into four sections: matriarchy, memory, actors and relations.

According to the AGH, her “persistent vision is to represent Indigenous women and girls, advocating for self-representation and sovereignty.” The exhibit’s title is derived from “The 500 Year Itch,” one of Niro’s most well-known photographs, in which she subverts the famous Marilyn Monroe scene in the film “The Seven Year Itch.”

“500 Year Itch,” 1992, by Shelley Niro. Photo printed on masonite.National Gallery of Canada

It was taken in 1992, also the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, at a time when work by Indigenous artists was being both highlighted and demanded.

Bennett said she, and her co-curators, are extremely proud of the exhibit because it shows such meaningful work of a celebrated and talented artist.

Niro is the recipient of a Governor General Award and Scotiabank Photography Award, as well as numerous film awards and lifetime achievement honours.

“It’s rewarding to see people come and benefit educationally from learning about colonialism and its impacts on people,” she said. “Instead of hitting people over the head, it becomes, like Shelley says, sugar coating on a bitter pill. It’s not glossing over it, but she’s taking the time to talk to people.”

Niro said she believes art is both stimulating and, hopefully, inspiring. She wants those who come to the AGH to walk away with those feelings. “When I see an exhibit that makes me happy to have seen it, I feel totally invigorated to try and attempt to make art myself,” she said. “Not copying it, but trying to recreate that feeling that makes life fun and pushing for bigger and better layers of expression.”

Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch

Where Art Gallery of Hamilton, 123 King St. W.

When Until May 26, Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission $15 adults, $12 seniors, no charge for students and children,


Lori Littleton

 is a freelance writer who enjoys reviewing theatre. She can be reached at Related