On Nov. 2, students in CAST150B: Introduction to Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation hung sixteen red dresses across campus for an installation by Jaime Black. The REDress project is an “aesthetic response to the more than 1000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada” according to her website. To accompany the dresses hanging outside from trees, an exhibition called “Between Us” in the Kniznik Gallery displays Black’s photography and poetry.
The Canadian artist spoke to the class, led by Professor Shapiro-Phim, through a Zoom call on Oct. 5 to discuss the logistics of installation and answer questions. Black introduced herself and expressed her deep personal connection to the project.
“This work is really close to my heart,” Black stressed. “I just thought it was really important that I use my talents as an artist to give back to the community and create a space where we can all gather together and create circles of solidarity.” Black identifies as Métis, a mixture of Anishinaabe and Finnish descent. The 11 year project has connected her to Indigenous communities, particularly to Native women who have experienced sexual violence.
The Association on American Indian Affairs states that “84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.” Black stressed that these high levels of gendered violence stem from “colonialism specifically.” The Métis artist-activist created the REDress project to accentuate the lingering impacts of settler colonialism on Indigenous women. It has gained traction over the past decade—supporters have donated over 400 dresses to her installations in Canada, and more recently, in the US. Among instances of the project’s expansion was Black’s 2019 installation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“[The REDress project] grew beyond what I ever would have imagined,” Black said. At first, her knowledge about the crisis of missing Indigenous women was limited, but speaking to elders, activists and community leaders has been illuminating.
“It was very much an intuitive process to create the work, and then it carried me and educated me as I went,” said Black. “I just really wanted people to encounter those dresses over and over and over, so they could not ignore and erase our presence as Indigenous women.”
Black sees the red dresses as a dialogue starter, art that facilitates space for healing and learning. She likens installing the dresses in semi-public spaces to a “social experiment.” In the past, passersby have demonstrated overwhelming respect towards the pieces, re-hanging those that fell and leaving their own red dresses near the installation as anonymous offerings. Still, there have been a few instances where people have become aggressive, tearing dresses from their hangers.
“Of course that’s what we worry about,” Black sighed. But she’s grateful for the reverence most people display towards the pieces. If anything, opposition to the installation is indicative of the political landscape of areas, which “becomes part of a story” that needs to be told, according to Black.
There is an image taken of Black in a red dress that illustrates how her work has evolved over the years. Black dances in a barren, snow-laden forest, the ruby garment floating dynamically around her shoulders like a puff of red smoke. Black differentiated the presence of a body inside of the dress from installations of empty red dresses.
“What does it look like when we’re present instead of absent as Indigenous women?” Black considered. By depicting these women and their communities inhabiting their bodies with power, Black reshapes a narrative that so often centers trauma.
This week, “Between Us” was finalized at the Kniznik Gallery. The centerpiece of the exhibit? Four red dresses facing the cardinal directions, accompanied by stones and twigs. They underscore the Indigenous connection to the natural world, a theme that surfaces in Black’s photography adorning the walls. Imagery of red ribbons represents the “lifeblood” of Native people, particularly as they interact with water in the videography showcased in the gallery.
Black has connected profoundly to the color red since she was 17, when she would tie red string to trees. It’s the color of spirituality and reclamation for many cultures—one Dakota woman told Black that “red is the only color the spirits can see.” In the same vein, the red dresses are an opportunity to make Indigenous women noticed in society.