A blanket made of beads. A simple concept, but one fraught with Canadian colonial history. But don’t tell Rebecca Belmore that, because she’s keeping that on the downlow.

Belmore, a 53-year-old Anishinaabekwe artist from Sioux Lookout, Ont., has been chosen to create a large work of original art for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

This will be one of 10 commissioned original artworks that are intended to help connect museum visitors with human rights issues.

Belmore was the first aboriginal woman to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale’s Canadian Pavilion in 2005. She also received the 2013 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

Her work has historically been inspired by the current social and political landscape of aboriginal people in Canada. 

The museum, however, will not acknowledge the history of colonial control of indigenous peoples as a genocide in the title for one of their exhibits on this experience. The CMHR said it’s not in a position to determine what constitutes a genocide and it doesn’t plan to use the term for the exhibit.

"We are not a court. We are not an academic institution. We rely on those sources for information to inform our exhibits," said Angela Cassie, a spokesperson for the museum.

It’s these kind of tough issues that Belmore has been known to explore.

Still image from 'The Blanket' (2011)

In her video installation The Blanket (2011) Belmore addresses the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the blankets that were distributed to carry out a smallpox epidemic. Still from video. (Canada Council for the Arts)

In her video installation The Blanket (2011) that was a part of Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years (the largest international show of contemporary indigenous art ever held in North America), Belmore addresses the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the blankets that were distributed to carry out a smallpox epidemic that destroyed populations of aboriginal communities during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The video featured Winnipeg dance and performance artist Ming Hon enveloped in the blanket while rolling down a snow-covered hill. She rises to stand and cover the blanket around her while she looks up and music that sounds like Gregorian chanting mixed with a drum is playing hauntingly in the background. She transforms into a state of shock and violence and cries to the wind. The sadness erupts from the screen. Soon, she is left cold, wrapped in the blanket frozen. Dead.

“The deliberate impregnation of the smallpox virus into government-issued blankets distributed to aboriginal people in the 18th century represents one of the most horrific stratagems perpetrated against aboriginal peoples,” said Lee-Ann Martin, one of Canada’s foremost curators of Canadian aboriginal art.

She made the remarks during a public conversation held at the opening weekend for the exhibition.  

Martin approached Belmore as her selected artist to put together a proposal to the CMHR. Her inspiration came from the earth.

As a Winnipeg resident, Belmore often walks by the site where the CMHR has been erected. Between 2008 and 2012, while the museum was under construction, there were over 400,000 artifacts found. Of these artifacts, there were almost 200 aboriginal fire pits and a great deal of ceramic shard. Red River Valley clay gumbo was also a part of this excavation as it is natural to the earth below CMHR.

Rebecca Belmore making clay beads

Rebecca Belmore works some clay dug up from the Red River Valley to create “beads” for her massive installation coming to Winnipeg's Canadian Human Rights Museum. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

“So if you put fire, earth and clay together you get ceramics. It seemed like a good idea to go in that direction,” Belmore said.

“It’s this idea of thinking about the historic material that was taken from the ground and a conceptual level of revisiting this idea of human beings that have always used the earth to make objects that were functional to them, to us. So therefore this work is … about our human relationship to the land.”

To help create these beads, Belmore has created workshops engaging the people of Winnipeg to participate in the artistic process. She has set up shop at Neechi Commons, an aboriginal community business complex that houses a food co-op, restaurant, gift store and arts centre.

The work, entitled Trace, will be showcased on a 74-square-metre wall in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery of Canada’s new national museum opening in September 2014.  

'So if you put fire, earth and clay together, you get ceramics...revisiting this idea of human beings that have always used the earth to make objects that were functional to them, to us...therefore this work is…about our human relationship to the land'- Rebecca Belmore

The idea is to create thousands of hand-pressed clay beads, which are to reflect concepts of earth, water and sky. The beads will be strung together to create a large blanket with folds and pulled up from the middle as if on a hook.

People are invited to stop into the Neechi Commons in Winnipeg to participate until March 30 to create some clay beads and leave their own trace of history.

While Belmore remains tight-lipped on whether or not this is social commentary on Canadian colonial history and the genocide of Aboriginal peoples, her prior work as a point of reference certainly seems to indicate that.