When it came to selecting an artist for the inaugural Audain Professorship in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest, the choice for Visual Arts department chair Daniel Laskarin was clear: it had to be Rebecca Belmore. “She’s a First Nations artist of substantial repute, a person with a strong international reputation who had represented Canada at the Venice Bienale, and one who could give our students the benefit of her skills and experience,” explains Laskarin.
In a word, Belmore was ideal. Born into the Anishinabe First Nation in Upsala, Ontario, but currently based in Vancouver, Belmore is internationally recognized for her enviable 25-year legacy of multi-disciplinary art, which explores themes of history, place and identity through sculpture, installation, video and performance.
In the catalogue for the 2005 Venice Biennale, where Belmore’s performance projection “Fountain” was Canada’s official entry, noted Cornell University visual historian and artist Jolene Rickard described how the artist’s “role as transgressor and initiator—moving fluidly in the hegemony of the west reformulated as ‘empire’—reveals how conditions of dispossession are normalized in the age of globalization.”
Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more fitting artist to kick off the Audain Professorship, which—thanks to a $2-million gift from celebrated BC art philanthropist and National Gallery of Canada board chair Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation—will bring a distinguished practicing artist to teach in the Department of Visual Arts each year. (As well as the Audain Professorship, the main public gathering and exhibition space in the Visual Arts Building is now named the Audain Gallery and Atrium.) In addition to her noted residencies and extensive exhibition history, Belmore’s work has appeared in numerous exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including two Canadian solo touring exhibits in the past decade.
Speaking at the end of the academic year, Belmore is obviously pleased with what she describes as her “first kick at the can at working a whole semester.” Offering a characteristically wry smile, she says, “Usually I just do short-term workshops and, in that sense, this Audian Professorship is quite beneficial, especially for myself—to let me figure out how I can fit into this idea of teaching. And I have to thank Mr. Audain and the university for collaborating on this project. It’s a great opportunity not only for the program here, but for artists like myself—and, of course, the students.”
Working with a small number of undergraduate students with zero performance experience (“they were totally green,” she says with another smile), Belmore explains how she had them create performance art pieces throughout the entire semester. “I was trying to share with them my process as an artist—which is kind of spontaneous, and involves more short-term planning than long-term. I ran my classes with a certain looseness, trying to verge on spontaneity, which was great, because they were really quite open to going with the flow, trying to figure out what I was sharing with them. And they made great work; I was quite surprised and impressed with their enthusiasm and creativity. Another thing I really enjoyed was being asked to do studio visits; I had some really good conversations with students outside of my immediate classes.”
One challenge Belmore faced was encouraging her students to think beyond the Ring Road. “I was trying to get them to think about themselves in the context of a larger society, to work with a mix of personal experiences and what’s going on in the world.” That’s something Belmore herself had to deal with when she was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design back in the ’80s. “I initially came to performance art from a more politicized point of view, because there’s nothing more politicized than your own personal being, your body,” she explains. “Using the body as a vehicle to negotiate and navigate the contemporary art world is a very interesting path and journey; my being here is another experience for me to continue to push myself as an artist.”
Speaking on behalf of Belmore’s classes, Laskarin says, “The students she worked with were very enthusiastic about their experience with Rebecca, and she was able to offer them a perspective that was extra to what they were already exposed to by our continuing faculty.”
And when asked for her take on her UVic experience, Belmore just smiles. “Obviously, as I’m maturing—I don’t want to say getting older—I’m happy to experience teaching in a traditional art institution,” she says. “Everybody was very supportive—and very busy—and now I have a better understanding of how much work it is to teach at this level. And I’m curious how it affected my students’ other work; hopefully there’ll be another performance art class in the program at some point.”
Laskarin is also clearly pleased with the recent announcement of the next Audain professor: acclaimed Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, currently participating in the Haida Manga Reading Room and Comic Jam Studio at Toronto’s Gendai Gallery. “In the long run—and already—the Audain Professorship will continue to bring an expanded field of vision to the Department,” says Laskarin. “It’s a small department in a small city, and even with the considerable experience that our faculty bring to the table, it’s very valuable to be able to bring in that kind of direct contact with outside influences. As faculty we travel to keep engaged with contemporary practices and thinking, but this is something that our students are not always able to do, or able to do so extensively; the Audain Professorship helps to bring the world to Victoria.”
And while Belmore will return in September for an exclusive exhibit at the Audain Gallery, does she have any advice for Yahgulanaas as the incoming Audain professor? “If you’re not already from Victoria, the challenge is to figure out how to be here and how to be somewhere else at the same time,” she offers, after taking a moment to ponder. “I’m in Vancouver, which isn’t very far away, but crossing the water once a week was kind of tough; if I lived up North or wherever and had to move here, that would really be a challenge. The ideal would be to make a temporary home in the Visual Arts building, so students could drop in and have a more casual relationship, but that didn’t really work out for me. It’s tricky to negotiate public space and private space; some people may be able to do that, but it’s complicated.”
Finally, does she have any hints on what we can expect from her Fall exhibit here? “No clue,” she says with one last, quick laugh. “I’ve gotta go get to work.”
Find out more about Rebecca Belmore by visiting her site
See some examples of the Haida manga style of incoming Audain professor Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Read more about philanthropist Michael Audain in this piece from The Ring and this from The Globe and Mail (May 9, 2011)