Review: Retrospective celebrates 25 years of vital paintings by Christi Belcourt

Christi Belcourt. So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel. 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Carleton University Art Gallery.

Walking With Our Sisters was as moving a work of art and collaboration as you’re ever likely to see. It was more than 1,800 moccasin vamps (or uppers) that had been decorated by hundreds of people from around the world, some artists and some not, some Indigenous and some not. Each vamp represented an Indigenous woman who had gone missing in Canada. 

The project was created by Christi Belcourt, the Metis artist, and while Walking With Our Sisters is not included in the current exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery — it’s a retrospective of Belcourt’s paintings, the medium for which she is best known — the exhibition is further testament to the social conscience and collaborative spirit of that memorial project, and the artist who was its driving force. 

Christi Belcourt. Prayers and Offerings for Genebek Ziibing. 2014. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Carleton University Art Gallery.

Both the project and the exhibition speak to Belcourt’s important role as a vital voice of art in Indigenous society, in history and culture, in rights and responsibility. Every touch of Belcourt’s brush on canvas speaks to such issues, even as the brush points become almost as small as small can be. 

There are 25 years of Belcourt paintings in the retrospective. The canvases grow more complex and more dense with touches of paint, and then, in very recent years, suddenly they have large sections of canvas bare but for earth-tone background. It’s evidence of a mind relentlessly exploring, constantly contemplating, and perhaps purging — as if the fine detail that would have covered those backgrounds was blown away in a decisive reboot. 

Belcourt’s arena is the land and the waters, populated with creatures and a verdant tangle of traditional medicinal plants. In the 2000s, hundreds or thousands of tiny dots began to pepper the scenes, an unmistakable representation of traditional beadwork. All is cast against dark backgrounds to better highlight the beads of colour and the acres of finely detailed flora and fauna, as seen in the black-velvet backgrounds used by Metis artists in the 19th century. 

To stand before 2008’s So Much Depends Upon Who Holds the Shovel, with its jungle of imagery and its considerable scale — I’m guessing it’s eight by four feet — is to bask in the feeling of how everything is intertwined, that everything grows from the roots. The beadwork says that history is made of individuals who hold together and grow together.

The Conversation, another large canvas, from 2002, is a peaceful kingdom of natural life. The rich greenery supports everything — the wisdom of the owls, the alertness of the flickers, the sturdiness of the woodpeckers, the exuberance of the songbirds, the beauty of the flowers, the fragile strength of the spider’s web. 

Christi Belcourt. This Painting Is a Mirror (2012). Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Courtesy Carleton University Art Gallery

The mind that creates such work must be patient and methodical, and what powers of observation it must have. Belcourt’s vision of the world is broad and deep, and ultimately hopeful. 

Belcourt is also open to change. A second section of the exhibition is entirely recent work, much of it in collaboration with the artist Isaac Murdoch. They have, with Erin Konsmo, formed the Onaman Collective, and much of the collective’s work is overtly political. At its website,, activist posters can be downloaded for free with slogans such as “We are here to protect our water,” and “No pipelines! Keep it in the ground.” A panoply of the posters hangs over the gallery. 

Christi Belcourt. Water Is Life. Courtesy Carleton University Art Gallery.

Included in the exhibition is one painting by Murdoch, and a couple that are collaborations between the Murdoch and Belcourt. Then there’s a half-dozen or so by Belcourt and apparently influenced by her collaboration with Murdoch — this are where the open swaths of background are found. Unlike her other paintings in the retrospective, here human figures are found, albeit god-like and, in one case, a spider woman Weaving Hair and Moon Medicine for Babies Making Their Way to Earth from the Stars. 

On the other side of the room, recent paintings also push Belcourt’s work in new directions. The familiar mythology finds a layer of the mystical, and there are subtle influences of a world of culture — a bull hints of Spanish motifs, and in another painting, a collaboration with Murdoch, a woman in yellow dress with arms raised brings to mind Mexican folk art.

The latter painting is titled New Beginnings, which Belcourt, after almost three decades of painting, seems determined to find, even as she brings forth the oldest traditions and history of this land. 

The exhibition, Uprising: The Power of Mother Earth curated by Nadia Kurd, continues to April 28. The show is co-produced by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.