The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Manhattan will complement Shelley Niro’s current retrospective, 500 Year Itch, with a film screening celebrating 20 years of the artist’s long-form cinematic expressions this Saturday, October 7. The program will feature three films exploring the Six Nations Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) artist’s perspective and portrayals of Indigenous womanhood through humor, place, and relationships. The artist herself will also be in attendance, hosting a conversation with the audience after the consecutive screenings.
“Niro is interested in the heroics of Indigenous women and often uses traditional Haudenosaunee stories such as Sky Woman and the Peace Maker to structure her narratives,” David Penney, NMAI’s associate director for museum scholarship, exhibitions, and public engagement and a co-curator of 500 Year Itch, told Hyperallergic in an email.
NMAI will start with Niro’s Honey Moccasin (1998), a 49-minute experimental film about the titular character, an investigator, played by Tantoo Cardinal, examining a rivalry between two bars on the fictional Grand Pines Reservation. Niro blends performance art and new media through this project that is equal parts crime mystery, cable TV show, and commentary on ethnic and sexual identity anchored by sharp wit and timeless references to pop culture.
Honey Moccasin is followed by a considerable shift in tone through Niro’s Kissed By Lightning (2009). The film focuses on Mavis Dogblood, a widowed Mohawk artist coping with her grief and working to keep her late husband’s memory alive by painting the stories he used to tell her. Mavis’s dedication to her late husband prevents her from connecting with her boyfriend, a loving and patient partner, as she navigates her non-linear path to healing. Kissed By Lightning explores Mavis’s interpersonal relationships and the roadblocks that prevent her from moving forward before she reconnects with her culture, her ancestral lands, and the matriarch of her late husband’s family.
The last film in the lineup is The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (2019), in which the titular character, a First Nations woman who moved to Toronto in pursuit of a fashion career, returns to the reserve of Owl Island on her father’s request to help care for her ailing, disgruntled mother. Mitzi is reluctant to put her dreams on hold, especially aware of the strained relationship she has with her mother, but finds power in reconnecting with old faces and old traditions back home.
“The humor and satire in Niro’s films evoke the Haudenosaunee traditions of critical teasing, particularly from women,” Penney said. “Her social critique issues from that standpoint — female-based observations of life and history. The films are often set in the locations of the Mohawk Valley — the Mohawk ancestral homeland — and the Six Nations Reserve in Canada — the imposed home of the Mohawk diaspora — are frequently referenced in her work.”
The film screening is a free event that will be hosted in the NMAI auditorium from 11am to 3pm. Those who are unable to attend can still enjoy over 50 years of Niro’s humor-infused, multi-disciplinary practice spanning photography, painting, short film, and mixed-media work at the exhibition running through January 1, 2024.