An Artist’s Expression: A Matter of Complexity

by Tabinda Khan

In the thirteen-year journey that I have been in Canada, my self-actualization process has not been a simple one. In fact it is a transformative process that has transcended with time and space. At fourteen years of age, I didn’t realize how a physical journey of twenty hours or so could bring my life into a silent spotlight that is deeply rooted in the simple act of entering a new land and leaving my old one behind. Many Canadian artists experience a similar feeling. Their artistic expressions have brought them to a level of intersecting identities emerging out of their native traditions and histories and culminating into one cohesive representation of Canadian art and cultural values. With the intersection of so many cultures, defining what makes Canadian art authentically Canadian is a complex matter. This issue not only questions the artistic production of each and every artist working in this country, but it puts them on a scale of measurability which in turn can cause confusion, anger, resentment and instability overall.

For artists whose cultural background lies outside Canada, expression and creativity are often unconsciously linked to one’s former land and the stories that are transferred from one generation to the next. This notion of transferability is varied among families, cultures and communities and can take any shape or form. The following will explore the lives and careers of two female Canadian artists whose expression is permeated by their cultural roots, making their art production versatile and unique. The artists in focus are Shelley Niro and Jamelie Hassan. Both women are represented in the National Gallery of Canada and are recipients of numerous national and international awards. The aim is to consider their work in terms of the complexities and conflicts between ideas of traditional and contemporary, formal and informal and Canadian and Non-Canadian.

Shelley Niro was born in New York in 1954 and was raised on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. She belongs to the Turtle Clan and in her works she re-imagines elements of Iroquois legends, and contests stereotypical representations of Aboriginal peoples in dominant culture. I had the recent privilege of attending one of her artist talks at OCAD University, which was my first encounter with her art. The event was in collaboration with a book launch highlighting Niro’s work called “Shelley Niro: Seeing Through Memory”, authored by Madeline Lennon, a professor of art history at the University of Western Ontario. The book is part of the Canadian Artists Monograph Series, which focuses on presenting and compiling the works of Canadian artists through critical texts, interviews and images. This book is a wonderful resource as it outlines Niro’s artistic timeline as well as presents robust and vivid images of her work. Among her artistic works, two of her pieces mentioned here convey a strong sense of stability and strength in cultural traditions.

Her lithograph from 2001, “Haudenosaunee Senses” presents a series of black and white portraits linked together over what appears to be a traditional purple rug. The background of the image is bright red, which is the most powerful element of the lithograph. Between the background and the purple rug there exists a series of DNA strands which are reminiscent of wampum beads. In Iroquois legends and traditions, the wampum beads have a significant cultural role. They are made of specific clam shells called “quahog” and were used to make belts that were worn by chiefs of the clans or by travellers delivering messages to present proof of authentication and authority. They were also used to record agreement, and as a form of currency. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy website describes the role of Wampum beads in the following way:

“For the Haudenosaunee, wampum held a more sacred use. Wampum served as a person’s credentials or a certificate of authority. It was used for official purposes and religious ceremonies and in the case of the joining of the League of Nations was used as a way to bind peace. Every Chief of the Confederacy and every Clan Mother has a certain string or strings of Wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station the string will then pass on to the new leader. ” 

The wampum beads in this context are therefore not just a mere artefact of decoration and colour, but their representation signifies the silent presence of a lost civilization whose methods of living and wisdom were sophisticated.

In her 1986 painting “Waitress”, Niro addresses the anger and resentment caused by the incorrect representation of Aboriginal peoples in mass media by Hollywood, as well as in western art and photographs. She again finds solace from this anger by finding a spiritual connection to her land and traditions. In her book, Lennon says, “At the same time, the historic and contemporary images she saw of her own people varied from those negative, stereotypical representations of mass media, television and Hollywood films, to the romanticized images of such photographers as Edward S. Curtis who in the 19th century considered the Indians a dying race” (Lennon, 7). In the painting Niro represents herself as a waitress serving wine to a white female customer. The wine has spilled from the glass and the customer is glaring at her in shock. On the contrary, Niro’s countenance is shown as very calm and composed. In the background, Niro has depicted a couple dancing, which is meant as a reference to the Canadian prime minister Brain Mulroney and his wife. A wall of flaming faces and glowing spirits surrounds the couple, and they are dancing on a floor adorned by celestial tree decorations. The figure of the waitress is a strong and defiant one who is not sorry at spilling the wine but her dress and face are glowing just like the fiery spirits in the background, unnoticed by the others. Lennon accurately conveys the artist’s emotions in these words, “We can read this painting as an expression of a simmering anger in response to her reality and also of the strength and support that she finds in the spirits of her tradition and culture” (Lennon, 9).


Jamelie Hassan was born in London, Ontario on September 1, 1948 to parents of Lebanese descent. Her life and work revolves around cultural intersections brought about by growing up in an Arabic household and deepening cultural roots by travelling and studying in Middle East. Her work resonates with worldwide issues of culture clash, female subjugation, colonialism, racism and political activism. Hassan’s international travels became a source for her artistic development. She was also acquainted with the regional London art and works from artists like Greg Cunroe, Murray Favro, Ron Martin, Dave Gordon and John Boyle.

Hassan has a vast repertoire of work ranging from installations, curatorial projects, writing, photography and film. In 2010, Blue Medium Press published the work called, “The Films and Videos of Jamelie Hassan”, edited by Julian Haladyn and Miriam Jordan. A testament to her dedicated production of art and practice of over thirty years is the exhibition called “Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words”, which was held at a London Museum in 2009. This exhibition juxtaposed her myriad of works and thus created a sense of continuous displacement and an inherent feeling of absence, which is present in many of her works. For instance, “Wall with Door” (1977) is a panel painted in acrylic with green leaves and red anthurium flowers, which gives a wonderful depiction of a blooming garden. However, there is a wooden door hinged to this panel. The open door is an illusion, and is hiding the flowering wall behind it. The idea of “absence” is prominent in this piece. While giving the introduction to Jamelie’s book, Julian Haladyn writes:

“Hassan consistently incorporates conceptual and even physical gaps into her work that as viewers we must negotiate in the process of viewing. Such lacunae, like the slightly opened door revealing the lack of an entrance in Wall with Door, mark the moments at which language fails to fully articulate or make meaningful our experience of reality” (Haladyn, 11).

One of Hassan’s politically active pieces is the photograph entitled, “Because…there was and there wasn’t a city of Baghdad”. The picture was taken in 1978 by Jamelie, and captures the beautiful image of a blue mosque with traditional calligraphy on its building. The picture was presented on a billboard in London with the above-mentioned title and text in 1991. This piece was specifically done in response to the U.S. government during the Gulf War. Through the billboards Jamelie brought a personal voice to the war and challenged views of the mass media and political propaganda. The text of this piece again brings forth the concept of impermanence for the viewer to the forefront. The conflicting statement overshadows the solid image of the mosque, and therefore Hassan depicts the emotions of uncertainty and loss for people who were personally affected by the war around the world. The land and architecture becomes a tool for representation for specific people and their identities.


Shelley Niro and Jamelie Hassan are successful contemporary Canadian artists who have earned their status through dedicated artistic practice that remains true to their experiences and identities. While both artists have earned numerous awards and recognitions, the most outstanding is the Governor General Award in Visual Arts in 2001 for Hassan and the first laureate of the Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award for Niro in 2012.

Through the exploration of these artists’ works we see the process of art becoming a “memorial” for humanity. These memorials are for lost identities and unsaid voices. The artistic representation of a true Canadian identity might be conflicted, but the artists should feel proud of becoming a vessel of preservation for art from around the world. The diversity is deeply rooted in the process of preservation as well as transformation of self-expression and creativity. The tension between the traditional and the contemporary, the formal and the informal, Canadian and non-Canadian are all part of the diverse fabric that is Canadian art and culture.


Haladyn, Julian. “Working Through Oblivion.” (n.d.): 11-17. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. 

Lennon, Madeline. “Meditations on Identity.” Shelley Niro: Seeing Through Memory. First Edition ed. London: Blue Medium, 2014. 6-28. Print.

“Wampum.” Haudenosaunee Confederacy. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.