Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture / Losing Edges / Sarah Dowling

Image credit: Normform on Shutterstock. 

This is an essay about reclining figures in two artworks. The way they lie, distinct but intertwined, invites us to reevaluate the way we describe the relationships between texts in different media. Can the painterly idiom of edges help to outline the shaded points of contact between photographs and novels? Can it help us to discuss modes of reference that are too diffuse to count as allusion, or that are less medium-specific than the term intertextuality implies? Can the textural valences of soft and hard help us to account for the intimacy of influence, for the ways that one artist’s practice presses upon another’s, for how the perceptibility or force of their associations shift within a given work, or over time?

This is an essay about Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s well-known photograph Fringe (2007). Specifically, it is about this photograph’s appearance on the cover of Michii Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and theorist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s novel Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (2020). While cover art is normally understood as distinct from the text it envelops, Noopiming brings its characters down to earth, lingering over the blankets, tarps, and other items that signify their often-lowly condition, the care that they do and don’t receive, their embedded relationships to land. Similar positions and objects recur across, and have even been said to structure Belmore’s oeuvre, a corpus that begins in performance and moves toward more durable iterations in photography, film, and installation.1 The hard edge between cover and text softens and is lost as figures that seem to be drawn from Belmore’s visual lexicon appear and reappear within Simpson’s novel. Evidently, the design is effective—it was recognized by industry magazine Quill & Quire as one of the best Canadian book covers of 2020.2 The reason it works so well is that it points to an ambiguous edge within the text itself: it is difficult to say where Simpson’s references to Belmore begin or end. But Noopiming’s connections to Belmore’s art don’t take shape as allusions—as direct, isolatable, distinct, and specific references. The ways that Simpson edges Belmore’s work into her own are softer than that. But in trying to trace them, we can perceive the depth and dimensionality of each artist’s portrayal of contemporary Indigenous life.

Cover from Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies reproduced with permission from House of Anansi, Toronto. Text copyright © 2020 by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, cover image by Rebecca Belmore.

Created in response to the 2002 arrest of Robert Pickton, who would confess to killing forty-nine women, as many as half of whom were Indigenous, Belmore’s Fringe depicts a woman lying on a flat, table-like surface, which is covered with a white sheet. Her head rests on a white pillow and a second white sheet covers her hips, buttocks, and thighs. Her right hand holds the sheet in place. Although she appears still, even calm, her back bears a huge wound. A deep and deliberate-looking cut runs diagonally across her, slicing from her right shoulder to her left hip. Seen from afar (the image was initially displayed as a billboard in downtown Montréal) it looks like thin ribbons of blood are seeping from the wound, which is sewn up with large, tight stitches. But Fringe is frequently reproduced in print, and also exists as a just-slightly-larger-than-life lightbox for gallery exhibition. We can look closer: what seems to be blood is thirty-odd strands of red seed beads in at least two different sizes, strung on curling bits of knotted white thread. They dangle from the laceration toward the table where some of them rest, whorled and pool-like.

The woman’s posture and the photograph’s accentuation of her waist and hips directly reference the odalisques of nineteenth-century European painting. But while many odalisques twist coyly toward the viewer, meeting our gaze over their shoulders, this woman looks forward, away from us. If her eyes are open, she is staring at a blank, grey wall. For many viewers, the clinical setting—flat surface, white sheet, dull background—moves the odalisque into a forensic context, with its attendant connotations of crime, violation, and evidentiary documentation. Here is what happens at the fringes of society. For ethnic studies scholar Shari M. Huhndorf, the woman’s position, laid out and turned away, leaves her “faceless and nameless, her body brutalized.”3 Beads represent blood; the image signifies structural violence. It continues to be a way in which death inhabits life.

To describe this woman’s body as “brutalized” is accurate, but it’s also incomplete. Obviously, she has suffered. But what is so much more remarkable is that she has also been adorned. How much time would it take to string the beads on each strand of thread? To lace them into her stitches? Each careful, precise knot—would it be tied in silence, or in conversation? What the woman’s back bears is evidence that someone, at least one, has sat with her, worried over her, touched her with thousands of small gestures that transform but do not erase her violation. For artist and curator Kathleen Ritter, the image literalizes Roland Barthes’s notion of the photographic punctum as a “cut” or as that which “pierces.”4 She suggests that what pierces us about this image is not the woman’s wound; it is that she has been touched, that someone was with her. There is more to the photograph than what is depicted directly: the fringe on the woman’s back is a soft edge that shades into other people, the beadworkers whose task remains conspicuously unfinished. The implication is that they’ll come back to tie up their loose ends. For Belmore, the idea is that the woman will “get up and go on.”5

Framed, enclosed, blanketed, or held by Belmore’s Fringe, Simpson’s Noopiming is a 350-page novel written in short fragments. Some look like poetry because they have line breaks and approach the page as a visual field; some are prose vignettes with a character-driven, descriptive focus. The frame narrator is a figure called Mashkawaji, who serves as the novel’s central consciousness.6 Noopiming opens with a monologue delivered in spare, monostich sentences and short paragraphs printed mostly across the top of the page: Mashkawaji explains that they are “frozen stiff / still / calm / no one knows if they’re coming back.7 Struck down and stuck in the ice of Lake Ontario, Mashkawaji compares themself to a hibernating turtle, “on a full fast inside time, pulled inside their organs, inside their turtle shell, inside the sediments of the lake while the iceworld forms on top, oblivious to the outside” (17).

Like Belmore’s recumbent woman in Fringe, Mashkawaji’s cold, still body calls up myriad forms of violence. Perhaps most obviously, there is the starlight tour, a recurrent, ritual terror where police drive Indigenous boys or men to the edge of town, leaving them to make their own way back, to face the elements and endure exposure.8 But Mashkawaji’s supinity also foreshadows other threats that appear within the novel, curtailing and constraining Indigenous life. Some characters register the various but targeted modes of exposure to pollution that Paiute scholar Kristen Simmons describes as “atmospheric violence.”9 Others lack housing, or, at considerable cost to themselves, provide supplies to those who do. Because Mashkawaji’s recumbent body evokes all of this, we can’t interpret them as solitary, isolated, inactive, or inert. Just as the strings curl off of Belmore’s woman’s back, reaching toward whoever it is who will come and complete the beadwork, Mashkawaji’s “other kind of life” extends toward seven other characters, Akiwenzii, Ninaatig, Mindimooyenh, Sabe, Adik, Asin, and Lucy—who, by the end of the book, is renamed Biidabaan (20). In their opening monologue, Mashkawaji explains that each character is associated with a particular part of their self or body—“Akiwenzii is my will” (23), “Ninaatig is my lungs” (24), “Mindimooyenh is my conscience” (25), “Sabe is my marrow” (26), “Adik is my nervous system” (27), “Asin is my eyes and ears” (28), “Lucy is my brain” (29). As in Fringe, their names signify a shading into other people or beings, a softening of edges between species and lifeforms. They point toward old people, maple trees, caribou, rocks, and stones.10

Noopiming proposes that when it comes to building a fictional world whose grounding condition is relationality, sometimes an edge is hard to find, and sometimes we’re mistaken in looking Mashkawaji’s posture recurs in and is reconfigured by so many moments across the novel when other characters other lie down on the ground, taking their position. They do so up north, while carving a new petroglyph; they do so on the sidewalks of downtown Toronto, as people are forced to every day. They do so while relaxing and birdwatching. These moments of recumbency transform Mashkawaji’s embattled posture, remediating and literalizing Simpson’s longstanding argument that Indigenous people’s “bodies should be on the land so that [their] grandchildren have something left to stand upon.”11 The novel concretizes this claim, placing characters in positions that expose and contest settler colonial dispossession, which Simpson defines as “the removal of Indigenous bodies from Indigenous lands… the erasure of Indigenous bodies from the present.”12 Noopiming’s grounded characters figure and refuse this ongoing violence—as we know from protest, when you lie down, your body becomes so much more difficult to remove. Just like in Fringe, these lying-down positions, enacted and reenacted, indicate the practices of recuperation and regeneration that will ensure Indigenous peoples’ survival and flourishing: “Akiwenzii lies down with their head on one of the deep crevices. They wake up at 11:55 p.m., hardly enough sleep, but just enough time to carve” (131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136).

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CONFIGURATION

If our shared experiment here is to consider the edge as a focalizer, this is what the edge between Simpson’s and Belmore’s work brings into view: it is surprisingly difficult to discover the border of a body, to say where a single person ends and where their network begins. When Fringe encloses Noopiming, when Simpson intercalates Belmore’s figures into her writing, what first appears as violation becomes a recuperative posture—incapacity edges into potential. Each work carries the other forward and extends it. Their dialogue establishes a broad, firm ground. Within and between the two, soft edges turn our attention to practices of mutual sustenance, toward all that enables anyone to “get up and go on.” Something supports the figure pushed to the furthest edge. We’re asked to see that something and attend to it, to take it seriously.

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This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here. 

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Endnotes

  1. Kathleen Ritter, “The Reclining Figure and Other Provocations,” in Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion, ed. Daina Augaitis and Kathleen Ritter (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008), 53-68.
  2. The cover was designed Alysia Shewchuk, collaborating with Simpson and her editor, the poet Damian Rogers. “2020 Books of the Year: Designers and Illustrators on the Year’s Best Covers.” Quill and Quire, November 30, 2020,  https://quillandquire.com/omni/2020-books-of-the-year-designers-and-illustrators-on-the-years-best-covers/.
  3. Shari M. Huhndorf, “Scenes from the Fringe: Gendered Violence and the Geographies of Indigenous Feminism.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 46.3 (2021): 561-587, 573.
  4. Qtd. in Ritter, “The Reclining Figure,” 64.
  5. Ibid., 65.
  6. The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary explains that “mashkawaji” is an animate intransitive verb meaning “s/he freezes stiff, is frozen stiff, has frostbite.” As you can see from this definition, Anishinaabemowin doesn’t use gendered pronouns; accordingly, the characters in Noopiming are referred to in the third person singular. Objibwe People’s Dictionary, s.v. “mashkawaji,” accessed January 2, 2022, https://ojibwe.lib.umn.edu/searchutf8=✓&q=Mashkawaji&commit=Search&type=Ojibwe.
  7. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2020), 9.
  8. Sherene Razack,  “‘It Happened More than Once’: Freezings Death in Saskatchewan,” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 26.1 (2014): 51-80. 
  9. Kristen Simmons, “Settler Atmospherics.” Cultural Anthropology 20 (2017), https://culanth.org/fieldsights/settler-atmospherics.
  10. These are versions of the definitions of some of the characters’ names as they appear in the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary.
  11. I have changed Simpson’s “our” to “their” because I am not Indigenous and cannot write as a member of this “we.” Naomi Klein, “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson,” YES!, March 5, 2013, https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2013/03/06/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson.
  12. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Indigenous Resurgence and Co-resistance,” Critical Ethnic Studies 2, no. 2 (2016): 19-34. 32.