28 Jul 2020  |  Clarissa Bluhm

Feeling Christi Belcourt's art

When going to an art gallery or a museum, the last thing I would probably do is to touch the surface of a painting hung up on the wall. If there is not any visual marker on the floor or any other kind of physical barrier between the artwork and me, then there will most likely be a beeping sound telling me that I am too close. It is also possible that a fellow human being will appear out of nowhere and tell me to step back. In these kinds of spaces, I am constantly reminded that I should keep a distance. The thought of getting in direct contact with a work of art would hardly ever cross my mind. That is just not how you should behave around these kinds of things. Right?

Yet, the Métis visual artist Christi Belcourt invites people to deliberately touch her large-scale acrylic paintings, which evoke the intricate patterns of the floral beadwork practiced by the Métis people of today’s Canada. While you are caressing the canvas with your fingers, you can trace the droplets of paint that were produced with the back of a paintbrush or a knitting needle. You can feel the tiny bumps that stem from these hundreds of thousands of tiny dots, which – equal in size and spacing – imitate the shape and surface of little glass beads stitched onto textile. Covering a surface easily surmounting to a few metres in width and length, these dots form the basis of Belcourt’s floral motifs. However, they can only be spotted from up close. Thus, in order to detect this underlying structure, you would have to get so close that your face almost touches the surface of the painting. Ideally, you would actually touch it with your hand.

Belcourt’s dotted paintings usually portray balanced structures of flora and fauna. Bright and colourful plants are connected by mutually shared stems or roots, forming an inseparable entity. Often, they are surrounded by a completely black background. Some of these plants were thoroughly studied by the artist. They are accurately depicted specimen that can be found in the Canadian landscape. Other plants, however, come from Belcourt’s own imagination. Since I do not possess the same ecological knowledge as the artist, I cannot tell the two apart. The tactile dimension of Belcourt’s artistic practice makes me reconsider the way I would normally approach an artwork as a student of art history or in a museum setting. How easily could I unlearn the ways I behave around a painting? How does such artistic work transcend, and how does it prompt me to question, the terms and concepts I have been using for dealing with something like a ‘painting’?

There are various layers of meaning and encoded metaphors in this example of contemporary Indigenous art that contains not only the re-appropriated knowledge of various plants used for ceremonial, medicinal and nutritional purposes, but also elements of the artist’s own biography.1  Furthermore, it represents an Indigenous worldview, educates by sharing Indigenous knowledge, and references a distinctive cultural practice. However, it is also a comment on current political situations combined with environmental concerns about ongoing pollution. After all, it is probably not so much a ‘painting’ that I was initially attempting to describe, interpret and contextualize. Instead, it is a multifaceted visual ‘teaching’ that needs to be engaged with, touched, and felt.

 

Footnotes:

1 See for example this video where Christi Belcourt narrates and traces the depiction of one of her paintings called “My Heart is Beautiful”.