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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Prominent Native American filmmaker to come to Davis

KATE SNOWDON / AGGIE
KATE SNOWDON / AGGIE

Free screening of “Kissed by Lightning” to be held by Varsity Theatre.

The Varsity Theatre, in association with the C.N. Gorman Museum, will host a free screening of Mohawk visual artist and Director Shelley Niro’s debut feature film, Kissed by Lightning. The screening will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 17 from noon to 2 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A with Niro.

Kissed by Lightning, starring and written by Niro, captures the journey of Mavis Dogblood, a Canadian Mohawk artist. Still grieving her husband’s death, Dogblood completes a series of paintings and travels to New York for an exhibit alongside her suitor. During the trip, she and her suitor have multiple experiences that force her to reckon with her grief. The journey is based on the Haudenosaunee legend of the Peacemaker and Niro wanted to keep this traditional story while blending with contemporary elements.

“You really want the story telling to be compelling, so that people can relate to it,” Niro said. “You don’t want people to feel like they’re listening to an old story.”

The blend of contemporary and traditional culture in Niro’s work is what drew Veronica Passalacqua, curator of the C.N. Gorman Museum and organizer of the screening, to Niro’s work nearly 20 years ago, and continues to attract her today.

“In terms of her filmmaking, she has a very clear point of view that makes her very distinct from other filmmakers,” Passalacqua said. “She’s a true storyteller and has always has been a storyteller.”

It took 10 years to create Kissed by Lightning, and Niro says that she never grew bored or frustrated with the long process.

“It’s like you’re living with characters in your head all the time until you can start developing them and start putting them into a film,” Niro said.

Niro, who grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, said that one of her goals with filmmaking is to educate people as to what reserves are really like.

“In Native [American] work, you’re always trying to make people aware that there’s more to people than the stereotypes,” Niro said.

Stereotypes and misrepresentation are issues that still plague Native American communities. Passalacqua spoke about the effects of misrepresentation and underrepresentation on the Native artist, and how the Gorman Museum works to combat those issues.

“The real crux of [underrepresentation] is that underrepresented artists are not given the opportunity to do solo exhibitions,” Passalacqua said. “Solo exhibitions are needed [for artists] to advance their careers, whether they want to go further in the commercial world, or whether they want to go into the academic world [and teach].”

Passalacqua explained that the Gorman tries to combat this issue by holding at least one quarterly solo exhibition.

“The opportunity to have a solo show [and] to have a catalog published with it is something [the Gorman Museum] values very highly to support the community,” Passalacqua said.

Niro felt it was important to bring Kissed by Lightning to Davis, as she is familiar with the university’s Native American studies department. She believes it is important to screen the movie to people who have indigenous backgrounds or are interested in indigenous culture.

Dr. Zoila Mendoza, the chair of the Native American Studies Department at UC Davis, shares this sentiment. In a statement via email, Mendoza noted that as an underrepresented group (American/Alaskan Indian students make up one percent of UC Davis’ population), the Native community’s image in media is often distorted.

“Mass media, and perhaps some of the not-very-responsible teaching on campus and elsewhere, often presents biased and distorted perspectives of such history and reality,” Mendoza said in the email. “[These perspectives] perpetuate and increase the ignorance that creates stereotypes and racism.”

Mendoza believes that events like the Kissed by Lightning screening are important because they have the power to educate the public about a community that is often forgotten by the media.

“Events like [the screening] and discussion are valuable sources for the members of the UC Davis community given the fact that there are very few reliable ways in which members of this community can learn about the reality and history of Native Americans,” Mendoza said in the email.

Currently Niro is waiting for funding for other film projects, but in the meantime, she continues to focus on her visual artwork.

“Once you start making film it takes up your whole life for two or three years, but in between [films] I need something to do, otherwise I get antsy,” Niro said. “Photography isn’t easier, but you can make something in a lot less time. I have an exhibition of paintings here in [Ontario], at the Glenhyrst Gallery. It’s gone really well, we’ve had a few school groups [come] through, and it’s just nice to see your work hanging on a wall.”

For more information on the screening, visit http://gormanmuseum.ucdavis.edu/Exhibitions/events.htm.

Written by: RASHAD HURST and KATE SNOWDON – arts@theaggie.org

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