Christi Belcourt, Métis visual artist, activist, author (born 24 September 1966, in Scarborough, ON). The vibrant colours and themes of Belcourt’s art reflect the interconnectedness of nature and human beings. Her art speaks to the struggle for Indigenous identity and sovereignty. Belcourt’s activism focuses on Indigenous issues related to justice, education and meaningful reconciliation. (See also Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada and Important Indigenous Artists in Canada.)
Belcourt was born to Judith Pierce Martin and Tony Belcourt. Her Métis family, that would later include brother Shane and sister Suzanne, traced its roots to the Manitou Sakhigan ( Lac Ste. Anne) community in Alberta. Until she was four years old, the family lived in Edmonton. In 1970, they moved to Ottawa when her father became the founding president of the Native Council of Canada, now called the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
Belcourt suffered a dark period in her life when she left school and fell into a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse. Odawa Elder Wilfred Pelletier encouraged her to end this self-destructive lifestyle and to connect with her Indigenous ancestry. From this personal journey came Belcourt’s passion for art, particularly intricate Métis beadwork. Belcourt learned to represent the beadwork in acrylic on canvas paintings.
Many of Christi Belcourt’s paintings are in the permanent collections of prestigious galleries. These include the Gabriel Dumont Institute, National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, First Peoples Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, and in the Parliament Buildings.
Among her most powerful paintings is Bloodletting: Does This Make You More Comfortable with Who I Am? (2004). It is a self-portrait that shows Belcourt sitting in a chair, facing the viewer with wide, disturbed eyes. There are several cuts on her outstretched right arm, which is bleeding into a bowl on her lap while she holds an eagle feather in her left hand. On a table before her is a beer bottle and cigarette butts.
The painting is biographical in that it speaks to her dark years. But it also urges viewers to consider the effects of the Indigenous struggle for identity. The painting was inspired by Belcourt being told that she could not apply for arts funding because she is Métis and also a Non-Status Indian. The painting expresses the pain and anger she felt when confronted by systems of colonization.
Another of Belcourt’s many celebrated works is an acrylic on canvas painting called My Heart Is Beautiful. Belcourt enjoyed a summer on the land in Saskatchewan, sketching plants. The large 3.6 m by 2.4 m painting pays homage to beadwork through its use of about 250,000 dots of vibrant colours on a black background. It depicts animals and intertwined plants and trees, demonstrating that everything in nature is interconnected. The roots of plants are shown to remind us that, as she says, “there is more to life than what we see on the surface … and that we need nurturing from Mother Earth in order to survive.”
The Wisdom of the Universe (2014) is bright, colourful, and shows animals and plants that the Canadian government has listed as endangered or already extinct. Belcourt explained that she wanted the large painting to remind viewers of how our unsustainable practices are hurting plants and animals and damaging the planet. From June 2019 to January 2021, The Wisdom of the Universe was included in a four-city American tour of Indigenous art.
Most artists and galleries forbid viewers to touch paintings. Belcourt, on the other hand, encourages people to touch and feel the paint. Touching her work allows one to truly appreciate the metaphor of the thousands of dots that create it — each separate and unique but each part of a greater whole.
Did You Know?
Christi Belcourt collaborated with Milan-based fashion house Valentino. Her artwork Water Song was featured in the 2016 spring women’s collection.
Belcourt organized and, through crowdsourcing, funded a travelling exhibit called Walking With Our Sisters. It consisted of over 1,763 intricately beaded vamps, which are the top parts of moccasins. Each pair of vamps was donated and represents a murdered or missing Indigenous woman or girl. The vamps were arranged on a red cloth that wound a path across the floor. The fact that only the tops of the moccasins formed the exhibit symbolized the incomplete lives of the lost women and girls. The exhibitions expressed art as ceremony and a method of education and healing. The first exhibit opened in Edmonton in fall 2013 and went on to tour over 30 galleries in Canada and the United States.
Belcourt and fellow artist Isaac Murdoch created the Onaman Collective in November 2014. It organizes Indigenous environmentalists and artists who share a belief that the ways of the ancestors must be reclaimed. The Onaman Collective works focuses on inviting young Indigenous people to seek traditional knowledge through the creation of art, canoe building, snowshoe making and much more. The group also conducts research and presentations on a host of topics such as pictographs and sacred sites.
The year 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. Belcourt co-created #Resistance150 to remind Canadians that Indigenous people had been on the land for over 15,000 years and that colonialism and systemic racism remain. Belcourt was joined by other Indigenous artists who created works of art that spoke to the need for new perspectives and healing.
Christi Belcourt’s first book, Medicines to Help Us, was published in 2007. It is based on her painting of the same name and includes 27 high quality prints of her paintings and a booklet describing them. It was nominated for a 2008 Saskatchewan Book Award.
Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking ahead): Description of the Design is a six-page booklet published in 2012. With accompanying photographs, it describes and interprets a stained-glass window that Belcourt created that tells the history of Indigenous peoples and how dance, ceremony and a concern for the unborn offer keys to reconciliation and a better, more sustainable future.
Keetsahnak: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters is a collection of essays, published in 2018, and edited by Belcourt, Kim Anderson and Maria Campbell. Belcourt wrote the prologue entitled “Walking Dreams: Reflections on Walking With Our Sisters.” It describes the Walking With Our Sisters travelling exhibition and reflects on the Trudeau government’s attempts to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the related issue of systemic racism.
- Ontario Premier's Awards for Excellence in the Arts, Artist Award (2016)
- Governor General's Innovation Award (2016)
- Art Gallery of Ontario People's Choice Award for The Wisdom of the Universe (2015)
- Aboriginal Arts Award Laureate, Ontario Arts Council (2014)
- Influential Women of Northern Ontario, Aboriginal Leadership Award (2014)