Born in Niagara Falls, New York, Shelley Niro moved with her family to the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) Nation. She is a multi-media artist whose work involves photography, painting, beadwork, and film.
Niro was surrounded by art from a young age while growing up on the reserve. Beadwork, soapstone carvings, drawings, and watercolours were commonplace and were often sold at festivals. As a child, Niro’s father encouraged her to pursue art and draw from observation. Niro’s mother influenced her to make art that moved beyond craft and was truly unexpected. Niro attended the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Ontario College of Art. She discovered photography while in a printmaking class, which would later become a key medium for her artistic expression.
After observing representations of First Nations peoples in museums, Niro realized there was a disconnect between these depictions and her reality. Her frustrations led her to create a powerful self-portrait entitled Waitress in 1986. During her career, she has produced series of photographs (Mohawks in Beehives, This Land is Mime Land, and M: Stories of Women) and numerous films (Honey Moccasin, It Starts with a Whisper, The Shirt, Kissing by Lightning, and Robert’s Paintings.)
Niro’s work challenges myths and stereotypes by depicting First Nation’s peoples counter to representations generated by centuries of colonization. Her approach presents identity as complex instead of suggesting a shared experience among all peoples. Although some of her pieces have humorous undertones, Niro’s work does not discount the impact of history, politics, appropriation, and bureaucracies on First Nations reality.
Niro was the inaugural recipient of the Aboriginal Arts Award presented through the Ontario Arts Council in 2012. In 2017, she received the Governor General’s Award for Media and Visual Arts, the Scotiabank Photography Award, the Reveal Award from the Hnatyshyn Foundation, and the Visual Arts award from the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation.
CV Courtesy of Shelley Niro
A Driving Force interview conducted by Lauren Lambe and Julia Schwindt
M.A. Public History Program, Western University
Nicole Coenen, Videographer
Click here for information about works by Shelley Niro
in McIntosh Gallery’s collection.