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Beyond moccasins and feathers

 UMBC welcomed Shelley Niro for an artist talk at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery on Tuesday, March 6. Shelley Niro is one of many artists whose work is currently displayed in the exhibit Our People, Our Land, Our Image. The exhibit is meant to provide insight into bicultural identity. Further, the exhibition demonstrates the continuing vitality of native traditions through photography and expands indigenous self-presentation.

Niro’s photography pieces have been esteemed for challenging the dominant narratives about Native Americans. Images associated with Native Americans often include people on horseback, wearing headdresses or feathers. Niro’s art pieces depict indigenous peoples as more than moccasins and feathers. Niro’s “The Iroquois Is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society” depicts the photographer’s smiling mother in her kitchen beneath a hair dryer. The piece uses humor to show that mothers play a large role in her society. 

At the artist’s talk, Niro was surrounded by students and faculty who are awe-struck by her work. One eager UMBC student asked, “how are you able to use various mediums, such as photography, sculpting and films to share your message?” Niro explained that she uses each instrument to express herself differently. 

Niro is drawn to photography because of its ability to be direct. However, Niro does not neglect her filmmaking roots. She recognizes that photography is more direct and vulnerable in the gaze of the spectator.  Niro is known for being a prolific and multidisciplinary artist. One can find her paintings at the National Gallery of Art and her films at the Sundance film festival.

Niro uses family members and relatives in her photography. She explains that most of her art uses celestial design, which represents life and culture. Although Niro sometimes uses humor as a reprieve from the political, she takes a clear stance on what it means to be a native; Niro believes that we should question the preconceived notions that we have about natives that emerge from western hegemony. Natives are just like us.

Niro also believes the way to dismantle stereotypes associated with indigenous representation in photography is by showing images of natives partaking in ordinary activities. For example, Niro depicts her and her sisters dressing up in costumes in her 1991 art piece, “Sisters.” However, that does not negate the fact that identifying as a native person in Canada often shapes your experience. Shelley Niro’s photography is currently displayed at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery. The Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.