The Body in “smallpox, anyone” by Nishnaabeg Poet Leanne Simpson

Canadian media frequently limits Indigenous art to gallery displays that encourage non-Indigenous viewers to exoticize Indigenous art pieces. Instead of displaying them in art galleries, Indigenous art pieces should end up in historical or anthropological exhibits. However, contemporary Indigenous artists are often excluded from such exhibits. As a result, Indigenous artists have to fight for representation in the public realm of Canadian art. In a poem entitled “small pox, anyone,” Nishnaabeg poet Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes about what it means when Indigenous Peoples see themselves represented in the art world. The poem is part of a larger collection by Simpson called Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs, which contains many poems and vignettes featuring Indigenous characters. The poem can be read here. A recitation of the poem set to music can be found on the publisher’s site, which contains a free spoken word album with musical recitations of “small pox, anyone” and several other pieces found in Islands of Decolonial Love. The poem responds to work by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore. 

portrait photo of Leanne Simpson

Leanne Betasomosake Simpson is a Michi Sagiig Nishnaabeg poet and the author of Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs, which contains a poem called “Smallpox, anyone” responding to Rebecca Belmore’s art. (Image Source: Ryerson University)

Rebecca Belmore is most famously known for her bold performance pieces that aim to raise awareness about issues facing Indigenous Peoples. For example, in the piece “Artifact #671B,” Belmore placed herself in a museum display case and labelled herself as an artifact to represent the way that Indigenous Peoples’ heritage is preyed upon by museums while contemporary Indigenous artists must struggle to gain recognition. This performance took place during a protest against Shell Oil, which was funding a museum exhibit without including contemporary Indigenous artists or consulting with Indigenous Peoples. 

Rebecca Belmore labels herself as an artifact

“Artifact #671B” was a performance piece by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore in response to an art exhibit called the Spirit Sings which was held during the 1988 Winter Olympics and sponsored by Shell Oil. Belmore drew attention to the hypocrisy of Shell Oil for sponsoring an exhibit with historical First Nations art pieces while still drilling for oil on the territory of the Lubicon Cree without their permission.  The Spirit Sings exhibit also did not include any contemporary First Nations artists. (Image Source: rebeccabelmore.com)

By excluding contemporary Indigenous artists from public art spaces, non-Indigenous people also failed to recognize certain Anishinaabe aesthetic concepts, for example, the value of the human body in art and using the symbol of an imperfect and realistic body rather than an idealized one to represent political change.  

It is clear that Simpson admires Belmore’s work. She says “I’m drawn to Belmore’s work because she engages my Anishinaabeg knowledge and challenges me to respond to the world in an unapologetic, intelligent way. Belmore speaks to me in Anishinaabemowin, without using words.”

The genre of the poem that Simpson writes in response to Belmore’s work is known as ekphrasis, which is a vivid description of a work of art. Though this genre of poetry can be traced back to ancient Greece, Simpson puts a unique spin on it by including personal commentary and connections to how Belmore’s art pieces make her feel. In Simpson’s ekphrastic poem “smallpox, anyone,” the speaker of the poem reacts personally to several of Belmore’s pieces that all involve the human body as a symbol of Indigenous Peoples’ material conditions. The speaker also adds informal, personal commentary to the poem to subvert the traditional European genre of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis typically analyzes the formal qualities of a work of art to argue a philosophical point about aesthetics. The speaker of the poem does this but also adds personal anecdotes to show an emotional connection to the subject matter. 

cover of Islands of Decolonial Love

Cover of Simpson’s book Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs, which contains several vignettes and works of poetry (Image Source: ARP books)

The speaker of the poem often responds to the depiction of the human body in Belmore’s art by using language that praises or cherishes the body and views it as sacred. This language of celebrating the human body is contrasted with the voices of other speakers in italics, representing non-Indigenous authority figures such as one of the speaker’s teachers. These voices have different ideas than the main speaker about what kind of representations are considered to be of cultural significance. 

The pieces by Belmore mentioned in the poem include: “the blanket,” a short film where a woman is rolling down a hill with a red blanket and struggling with it as if she is entwined in a battle against it, “rising to the occasion,” a wearable sculpture which combines British colonial and Anishinaabe design motifs, and a photo mounted in a lightbox called “fringe,” which depicts a woman’s back with a wound that is sewn up with a beaded fringe. The poem concludes simply with a message written on a sign that Belmore once held up saying, “I am worth more than 1 million dollars to my people.” “smallpox, anyone” contrasts how Anishinaabe and Western societies differ in their evaluation of the importance of art that depicts the human body.

In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker tells the reader how much she values the presence of the woman’s body in the performance art piece “the blanket” by contrasting her views with that of a teacher. Her emotions towards the woman in the piece are those of care and concern, as she speaks of her in a way that shows she cherishes her. She says, “[Belmore] rolled her down a hill/to remind everyone/that blankets are for swaddling/and not for smallpox.” The use of the word “swaddling” exemplifies the compassion that the speaker feels towards the woman in the piece and demonstrates the value of depicting a non-idealized body in Anishinaabe art. The speaker’s appreciation of the woman’s body also hints at her other values, which includes honouring women. These are values that the speaker of the poem deems valuable parts of her culture and, therefore, important to depict in art. Yet the speaker’s non-Indigenous teacher decides that these are not important aspects of her culture. The speaker says, “the teacher is telling me I should feel proud because toboggan is an Indian word.” These words are italicized in the poem to represent the views of a powerful person commenting on the speaker’s culture and telling her what parts of it to be proud of. The opening stanzas of the poem contrast the speaker’s compassion for the woman in the art piece with the teacher’s attempts to control what aspects of her culture she is allowed to be proud of, which represents their different aesthetic evaluations of the human body in art. 

still from the Blanket film

Last scene from “the Blanket” (Image Source: rebeccabelmore.com)

Some of the personal anecdotes which the speaker includes in the poem are humorous in order to show an emotional connection to the subject matter. This is done when she writes about “rising to the occasion,” the wearable sculpture that Belmore made, saying “I liked the saucers for nipples idea so much that I start/wearing dinner plates around the house/over t-shirts.” Although she does include some formal description of the artwork itself, this line shows that she also takes a personal interest in the piece and has an emotional attachment to it. 

belmore wearing a dress

“Rising to the Occasion” by Rebecca Belmore (Image Source: rebeccabelmore.com)

Sometimes, the speaker’s informal and emotional responses to the art pieces are not humorous but rather seek to empathize with the painful subject matter. This is shown when the speaker observes the piece “fringe.” She asks “when I cut my back like that/can you sew me up/the same way with/ the fringe and the beads?” This piece deals with the sensitive topic of violence against Indigenous women, and this is not lost on the speaker as the idea of violence permeates her mind. She shows concern for the woman portrayed in the photograph by imagining what it would be like to have a cut like that on her back. She forms an emotional connection to bodily artwork unlike in traditional ekphrastic poetry. Thus, the difference between Anishinaabe and European aesthetic theories on bodily art is represented with this twist on the traditionally European genre of ekphrasis. 

the fringe lightbox photo

“Fringe” is a photo mounted in a light box by Rebecca Belmore (Image Source: rebeccabelmore.com)

Throughout the poem, works of art are introduced and responded to, but the ending diverts from this structure. It quotes a line from an art piece with little commentary from the speaker of the poem. This suggests that the line is meant to demonstrate the speaker’s message on its own. Its location in the poem suggests that it encompasses the meanings of all the art pieces combined. While the rest of the poem introduces each work with a subheading, the last piece is introduced with a short comment “gitchidaakwe’s sign said” and then quotes the piece: “I am worth more than one million dollars to my people.” This sign was held up by Belmore during her performance piece “Worth” in which she yells “I quit”; yet, this is not mentioned in the poem to put the focus on the sign. The sign’s message shows that the value of the human body and of life can not be quantified in Anishinaabe culture. Community is so important in Anishinaabe culture; everyone is valued more than money because the survival of the community depends on them. The speaker also calls Belmore “gitchidaakwe” meaning “holy woman” to show her compassion towards Belmore’s body as represented in the artwork, which is similar to the emotional connection she has with the woman in “the blanket.” The ending of the poem represents how Anishinaabe art and culture value human life, especially the lives of Indigenous women, in a way that Western society fails to do.

sign reading "I am worth more than one million dollars to my people"

From the performance “Worth” by Rebecca Belmore (Image Source: rebeccabelmore.com)

Simpson’s representation of two different cultural attitudes towards bodily art suggests that the simple presence of a human body in art can make it powerful or politically influential. A human body in art can represent the struggle of living in poor material conditions caused by colonialism, a struggle that is internationally significant. Contemporary artwork by Indigenous artists is often excluded from art galleries because it does not conform to the stereotypical image of what traditional Indigenous art is supposed to look like according to Western audiences. It may also make some audiences uncomfortable because it challenges the colonial state just by depicting the existence of modern Indigenous peoples; the very existence of Indigenous peoples is a defiance of the state. When Western art depicts the human body in portraits or sculpture, it often uses an idealized style. Belmore’s art embodies realism and does not shy away from portraying struggle. The human body can give a  political purpose to a work of art, because the inclusion of that particular kind of body may be considered political in the society where the art is produced. Simpson’s poem shows us that representation, meaning the inclusion of a particular identity in art or media, is inherently meaningful and that the simple presence of a body can convey a complex theoretical idea.


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