- by David W. Penney
For more than 50 years, Shelley Niro (Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Turtle Clan), has been creating art built upon Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) philosophies, deep understandings of history and a woman-centered worldview. She confronts challenges faced by her people living on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in southern Ontario, Canada: They suffer from the persistent impact of colonial wars and pangenerational trauma from the racist policies of Canada and the United States. Day-to-day, the experience of being an Indigenous person is infused with irony. Yet she tempers hard truths with playfulness, complexity and wit. She celebrates women’s power, empowerment and the obligations of family as a path to a more equitable and just future. Throughout, Niro insists upon the healing and regenerative powers of art and laughter.
The “500 Year Itch” exhibition, now open at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, celebrates more than a half century of Shelley Niro’s paintings, photographs, mixed-media works and films. Accessible to all, often humorous and peppered with references to popular culture, her art digs deep into the timeless cultural knowledge and generational histories of her Six Nations Kanyen’kehá:ka community to provide purpose and healing. Excerpts from that exhibition follow.