Rebecca Belmore represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in
2005. An internationally recognized figure for her performance and
installation work, she explores notions of history, place and identity.
Mixed Blessing testifies to the lack of understanding and marginalization of Indigenous peoples as well as visual artists. Her kneeling figure seems fixed to the ground, weighed down by the insults inscribed on her back in the shape of a cross: Fuckin’ Indian / Fuckin’Artist. This prostrate figure creates an uncomfortably ambiguous effect, especially with the position of the hands, palms turned upwards, at once evoking the state of being reduced to begging, in devout entreaty and showing repentance. The streaming hair covering the whole body erases the figure’s identity entirely: according to Belmore, this figure embodies the status of all Indigenous people, and even all artists.
The penitent Mary Magdalene is a major figure in Catholic
iconography. The well-known saint was a former prostitute who
repented and converted. The painting Saint Mary Magdalene in the
Desert (1784) by the Neo-classical artist Jean-Joseph Taillasson
displays the attributes of the recluse: the full head of hair, the precious perfume bottle from which she anoints the feet of Christ;
the overturned jewellery case recalling her past as a courtesan; the
pearls representing luxury; and the tears shed over her past erring
ways and newfound purity. In Belmore’s work, the long, black hair
symbolizes Aboriginal freedom, before colonization forced them to
cut their hair, and the string of red beads (probably a reference to a
wampum) indicates the sacrifices and violence to which members
of the First Nations and artists are subjected.