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An Allegory of Canada for 2014: Rinelle Harper, Nicki Minaj, and Italian Art History

Rinelle Harper survived a brutal attack still brave enough to call for an inquiry into the disappearance and murder of indigenous women. Stephen Harper says it's not a priority. Shawon Kinew looks at Italian art and a possible artistic allegory for the...

Shawon K. Kinew

Bernini's Allegory of Truth Unveiled by Time. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Two Harpers. In Canada, on one side of the pendulum, we have Stephen Harper, Prime Minister for the past eight years, and on the other, we have Rinelle Harper, a teenaged survivor.

In early November, 16-year-old Rinelle Harper, a First Nations high school student, was beaten, sexually assaulted, and "left for dead" on the banks of the Assiniboine River in my hometown, Winnipeg. A month later she had the strength, grace, and courage to address a crowd of hundreds, calling for a national inquiry into Canada's 1,200 murdered and missing indigenous women (#MMIW).

My friends in Europe, where I live, didn't realize how dire the situation is in Canada until I explained it: Rinelle Harper's story is far from unique. A few months before Rinelle was found, the dead body of another First Nations girl, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, was pulled from another Winnipeg river wrapped in a bag. In retrospect, I can't believe how naïve I was as a teenager to be hanging out along the river—because Canada is ripe with racism, hatred, and misogyny, and even when it isn't, its rivers run with apathy.

Our federal government refuses to hold an inquiry, instead viewing the losses of all these women's lives as isolated incidents and not part of a larger epidemic plaguing our nation. As if responding to Rinelle's call, Stephen Harper told Peter Mansbridge this week regarding the prospect of a public inquiry, "It isn't high on our radar to be honest." In this same interview our Prime Minister admitted he had been trained by the RCMP to protect himself from national threats. Here is an image to ponder: 55-year-old Stephen Harper hiding in a darkened closet on Parliament Hill on October 22 and, a few weeks later, Rinelle Harper, 16, lying bruised and beaten and exposed to the elements on November 8. Harper has been Prime Minister for half of Rinelle's life but what has he done to protect it?

The same day Rinelle spoke, I visited the Galleria Borghese in Rome to study the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Allegory of Truth Unveiled by Time. In 1646, Bernini's career was in jeopardy, contracts terminated, and he turned to the marble block "to vent his feelings," as Rudolf Wittkower put it, because "in the seventeenth century such expression always took the form of a conventional allegory." Through the use of well-established symbols, Bernini could clearly convey his message. Though this work was never fully executed, Bernini intended to include the figure of Time, an old bearded man with a scythe, pulling back cloth, exposing Truth's body—hence, Truth unveiled by Time. His viewers would have recognized the symbolism immediately because Truth was almost always represented as a nude woman who held the sun in her hands, and Time had his attributes.

Earlier in December I rolled my eyes at the announcement of Nicki Minaj's European tour but didn't think twice about it. After seeing Rinelle and hearing her quiet voice call for justice, I thought again about Minaj's concert poster. In it, the Trinidadian-American pop star is bare-breasted and clad in a giant feather headdress. Its conceit: just as Columbus did when he first landed in the Caribbean, Minaj in a cocky reversal intends to conquer the Old World in an upcoming tour.

Photo via the Nicki Minaj Facebook page.

What Minaj and her team are relying on is an early modern allegorical type, one that was codified in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, a book of emblems first published in 1593 in Italy. The book functioned as a manual for artists who wished to impart complicated, abstract ideas with the quick and easy language of allegorical figures, physical attributes and symbols. This is why Truth is nude and holds the sun, Ripa explains: because light illuminates what is.

When it came to the subject of America, Ripa advised artists to portray her, again, naked but with a feather headdress atop her head (just like Minaj), bow and arrows strapped to her back and, at her feet, a decapitated head to show the barbarism of her people. There is an argument to be made that representations like these and their idiotic iterations in 2014 are partly to blame for the attitude in Canada that the lives and bodies of indigenous women are for the taking.

Inspired by Minaj's extensive knowledge of arcane early modern iconography and Bernini's sculptural rants, I began to wonder: What might an Allegory of (North) America look like today?

Is she a bloodied and bruised naked First Nations body floating down a river in a bag?

Is she simply marked by her absence, a blank page in a new Iconologia, her remains secretly buried somewhere no one knows, perhaps in a Pickton pig farm?

I probably would have said yes until I saw Rinelle speak. Rinelle is not an allegory; I don't want to do her that injustice. She is a human being, a normal girl who, in her own words, wants to heal, "to continue on with my life," "be able to go back to school, to see my friends and be with my family."

With that in mind, here is my addendum to Cesare Ripa's Iconologia:

CANADA. A clothed woman with brown skin. She wears her hair in an impossibly tight braid down the back of her spine. She does not wear a headdress nor is she naked. The Ancient Greeks did not write about her because sadly they didn't know of her. But the Elders of her world spoke of her: She is the water-keeper. In her left hand, she holds a glass of clean water, unspoiled by fracking, and in the hopes that someday all her people will have access to clean water. In her other hand, she holds an eagle feather because she is cherished by her community as a leader, because she is neither murdered nor missing, because, like the eagle, she is an integral link between this world and the world above.

Blood streams from her upper arms because she is a Sun Dancer; she pierces and gives flesh offerings as she prays with her relatives in this ceremony. Half of her dress is a made with rolled tobacco can lids, a Jingle Dress, because she dreamt of healing her community through this dance and does so for their health and continuity. The other half of her dress is composed of jeans and a t-shirt because she's probably in law school. She has a dog at her feet because she is loyal, strong, and adaptable. "As a survivor," she "respectfully challenge[s] you all to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women" so that Truth and Hope will be Unveiled in Time.

Exposed to the elements, she is Truth.

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