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'Peg-based provocateur wins GG arts award

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A prominent aboriginal performance and installation artist who relocated to Winnipeg last summer is a winner of a 2013 Governor General's Award in visual and media arts.

Rebecca Belmore was introduced Tuesday at La Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal and recognized for her distinguished career achievements. She and painter Marcel Barbeau and curator Chantal Pontbriand of Montreal, filmmaker William MacGillivray of Nova Scotia, composer Gordon Monahan and sculptor Colette Whiten, both of Ontario, and Calgary ceramicist Greg Payce, will receive a $25,000 prize from the Canada Council and a special issue medallion produced by the Royal Canadian Mint.

Next Tuesday they will be presented their awards by Governor General David Johnston at a reception at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

"It's good to be acknowledged by your peers," said Belmore, the 53-year-old Ojibwa who in 2005 was the first aboriginal woman to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale.

Meeting the governor general will be bittersweet for Belmore, who participated in the Idle No More indigenous grassroots protests inspired by last December's 44-day hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in Ottawa. Spence was adamant she wouldn't meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss treaty rights without Johnston's attendance.

"I understand that with my body of work, Rideau Hall seems like a weird place for me to be at this point in my career, accepting awards and money from the government, but the government is the public, ultimately," says Belmore, a longtime artistic provocateur.

"I'm sure the dinner will be very strange. Maybe I can rip up the cheque there. I don't think so because I have a lot of debt to take care of. But you never know. It depends what happens between now and then politically."

The graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design grew up in Thunder Bay and first grabbed national attention in 1988 with her performance Artifact 671B, for which she sat immobile as a museum artifact in -22 C weather for two hours outside the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

Some of her other significant works include an oversized megaphone in reaction to the Oka crisis, the environmental piece Eagle Drum, featuring an overturned BP oil barrel on which is projected an image of an eagle, and The Blanket, which was part of Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years exhibition at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. The latter focused on a Hudson's Bay blanket, a Canadian cultural icon that to aboriginal people is remembered as the white man's gift of disease.

Often her art brings together elements of her aboriginal heritage with contemporary events. She showed up at an Idle No More protest at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last December with a banner she made out of women's blouses emblazoned with the words No More, a comment on the missing aboriginal women of Canada.

"I'm motivated by what's going on around me, trying to make work that's politically engaged," says the recipient of the Hnatyshyn Foundation visual arts award in 2009. "I see the role of the artist as someone who provokes. My role is to bring attention to problems, not solve them."

Belmore and her artist husband moved to Winnipeg last August after she had established herself in Vancouver. The couple were looking for a change and a less-expensive lifestyle. The downtown Winnipeg resident says they had heard that living here was easier, but they've found the current winter hard.

"I was born in northwest Ontario (Upsala) and spent time in Sioux Lookout in the '90s so it's nice to be kind of close to home," she said. "There's a lot of Anishinabe people and I can hear the language being spoken on the streets."

The Rideau Hall ceremony requires her to wear a floor-length gown, something she hasn't worn in nearly 40 years.

"The last time I wore one was when I went to a Anne Murray concert in Winnipeg in 1974," she said. "I'm struggling with what to wear, whether to go gracefully or emphatically."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2013 C3

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