Critics’ Picks

Christi Belcourt, This Painting is a Mirror, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 101".

Christi Belcourt, This Painting is a Mirror, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 101".


Christi Belcourt

Art Gallery of Guelph
358 Gordon Street
July 7–October 11, 2020

In Michif (Métis) artist Christi Belcourt’s painting The Fish are Fasting for Knowledge from the Stars, 2018, six northern freshwater fish watch the dance of the Milky Way through an abandoned ice fishing hole. According to Isaac Murdoch, Anishinaabe knowledge keeper and Belcourt’s frequent collaborator, fish are known to “stargaze and look through B’gonegiizhik [the great hole in the sky] to see the future.” “Uprising,” Belcourt’s mid-career retrospective here, presents a mercurial sense of scale, such that the glowing spots on the side of the pike rhyme with the galactic blowout overhead. On an adjacent wall, six black, white, and red protest banners decry water contamination in clear calls to action: “Water is life. Protect the sacred.” Designed by Belcourt and Murdoch as open-source materials, these signs have been reproduced by the thousands in demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Murdoch is a member of the Serpent River First Nation, in Ontario, where local tap water has been made undrinkable by decades of uranium mining. Do Belcourt’s brilliantly colored fish fast to see the future, or simply to avoid ingesting poison?

In immense paintings drawn from studies of life and Indigenous beadwork patterns, Belcourt celebrates nature’s profusion in detail. Articulated in thousands of dots—which call to mind the dazzling pointillism of Chris Ofili’s early works—her paintings are so intricate they might be mistaken for tapestries. A dab of paint, like a stitch of thread, could be subsumed by the whole in This Painting is a Mirror, 2012, but Belcourt’s touch insists we see the vibrancy of the ruby-red feathers at a hummingbird’s throat or the fine veins of an oak leaf. Leaving the gallery, my eyes feel keen to see the city differently. Scanning for abundance, my gaze settles on a nearby staghorn sumac, whose crimson berry clusters are as opulent as wet paint.