Art plays a vital part on the road to decolonization

Projects like The REDress Project are important education mediums for Indigenous history and experiences

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Art gives a voice to those who have been silenced. Photo: Sam Javanrouh

By: Vrinda Kapadia, SFU Student

Content warning: mentions of violence against Indigenous communities

Despite persistent and deliberate human rights violations and abuses, Indigenous communities across Canada have shown tremendous resilience and solidarity throughout the years. Major art projects, initiatives, and campaigns by members of Indigenous communities are influential in illuminating the hardships Indigenous peoples face and start conversations around decolonization. These artistic endeavours are more than just nice to look at. They play an important role in telling Canada’s colonial history and are needed to remind us there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Through art, Indigenous peoples who have been previously silenced have now found a voice. 

One of the most recent initiatives is the 215 shoes currently arranged on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. These 215 pairs of shoes symbolize the lost lives of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This exhibit was assembled on May 28, 2021, just one day after the heartbreaking and painful discovery of the remains of these children. The memorial shines a spotlight on the undocumented deaths of Indigenous children across Canada. Additionally, similar memorials are emerging from coast to coast in honour of these children. 

Another one of these artistic campaigns is the REDress Project founded by Jamie Black in 2010. Black is a Métis artist determined to spread awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Black ventured to collect 500 red dresses donated by community members and aimed to hang them in and around the city of Winnipeg. Since then, fiery red dresses have been installed in several parks across Canada and have been part of exhibits in museums and other academic institutions. The bright red dresses, intensely fluttering in the wild or silently lurking among other exhibits, leave a striking impression on spectators. Black explains, “People notice there is a presence in the absence.” The REDress Project “calls in the energy of the women who are lost” and speaks for silenced Indigenous women.

The Faceless Doll Project, launched in 2012 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), is another one of the creative responses for raising awareness on the epidemic of MMIWG. It was envisioned as a travelling art exhibit in honour of the 582 cases of MMIWG accounted for in a research commissioned by the NWAC. Community Engagement workshops were set up across Canada and community members were educated on the crisis while they crafted their own dolls to contribute to the exhibit. The deliberate lack of facial features on the dolls reflects society’s continued lack of regard for these women and girls. The representation of lost Indigenous women and girls as faceless dolls depicts how they are deindividualized and devalued by society. The Faceless Doll Project sends a simple yet powerful message about the violent history against MMIWG.

There are numerous instances of creative programs founded by individual artists, groups, and organizations created to raise awareness on the issues plaguing Indigenous peoples in Canada. The history of Canada is filled with targeted violence, systemic racism, discrimination, purposeful denial and attempted abolition of cultures and languages, and more. It is in all of our hands to shape a better present and strive for a better future. These art projects are not only reminders of the hardships Indigenous communities have faced, but also a reminder of their incredible resilience. As such, these art projects are crucial in reflecting back to us the condition of our society and augment the acknowledgement of the experiences of our community members.

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