What is the REDress Project?
The REDress Project is an art installation – a collection of hundreds of empty red dresses hung in public spaces – designed to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The project has been exhibited in public spaces across Canada and the USA, providing an aesthetic response and visual reminder of the more than 1000 loved ones who have lost their lives and the families and friends who love and miss them still.
Métis artist, Jaime Black, writes, “Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.”
The permanent exhibit hangs at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. For more information, news coverage and a video produced by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, please see https://www.jaimeblackartist.com/exhibitions/
My gift to this world is the ability to create connections, between people, ideas, and stories.
I am writing this piece directly to you, who are reading it and taking the time to make your own connections about what is going on in this place we call home.
I arrived here eight years ago thinking I knew, from books and my personal background, what it could mean to live in a land of settlers, and not really seeing Indigenous people. It seems this is what most people here do – live their privileges without asking where they came from – but I knew I couldn’t be the only one questioning what has really happened since the Europeans arrived in America, and what the effects of that history are at the present time. That is why I felt the need to start connecting the dots and mapping out facts and history, getting more confident with my English and sharing my writing.
That is also why this 5th of May I wore a REDress, humbly following the initiative promoted by our local Touchstones Museum. I took the time to hang a dress at my house, pick up a book about reconciliation for me and my daughter at the library. There is no revolution possible without education, my Latin American heritage taught me, and we have all the tools to research our answers. Starting to think critically may make you lose some friends; the ones I’ll see on the patio because it’s 5 de Mayo and it’s just another excuse to have a margarita, without even knowing what the date means. (Do you feel less sympathy for me now that I sound cynical?) But I am no longer looking to please everyone. I feel accepted in this community and it’s my will to dive straight into activism, with artistic production or even just with a friendly chat when I meet you on Baker street.
“Why are you dressed up in red?” somebody asks me.
“it’s for the Indigenous women …”
But they don’t let me finish, because they don’t really care.
Walking from my home in Fairview to downtown, I did not see a single red dress hanging outdoors and it didn’t really surprise me, but it left a bitter feeling to my day. Especially after participating to the online event led by Lesley Garlow, Indigenous Educator at the museum, the disappointment/disillusion about how few in the Nelson community seemed interested in indigenous rights was quite intense. There were literally five people present online, two of them members of the museum board; those numbers speak alone. It felt like being part of a small but dedicated minority who wants to promote change and awareness on a large scale.
I am aware that schools and institutions are working on this, but of course it takes a community effort to shake the majority from their indifference. Walking or driving by Nelson City Hall where the Redresses are displayed, I heard of people not knowing at all what it was about, and heard comments like “It’s past history, we have to move on….”.
What really shocks me is this: not being able to put ourselves into the same situation. For example, when we talk about residential schools, it’s enough to ask anybody: “How would you feel if your kids were taken away from you in a place you didn’t want them to be?” to obtain a strong reflection and a clear answer. So why is it so hard to take the time to re/think what is being taught or hidden in your Canadian history books?
I am a new immigrant in this country, studying right now the booklet provided by the government to pass the citizenship test, and in those pages, I see gaps and omissions about the darkest chapter of this country’s history and present situation. So, I simply try to fill them up by informing myself, asking questions about who is dedicating their life and energies to actively change the community’s feelings around these topics. I look around myself and participate so I can be the change I wish to see, a model for our youth to grow up with.
Because this is indigenous land, we are all guests, no matter for how long our ancestors have being working on this soil, building and developing the current economy. This land was sacred and protected by the way of life of Indigenous peoples. Colonization brought the Big Death, a death of cultures and languages, memories and traditions. But not all is lost, and by unifying our efforts and voices to a common cause there is hope for a better future.
I saw in the ReDress a universal metaphor of murdered women, the sacrality of nature being raped by a system who wants to keep profiting by exploiting the earth. To not be a silent ally of this sick system, we need to step forward, talk openly with our youth, rediscover with them what is being purposely cut out from schoolbooks. Until recent times you wouldn’t have the possibility of having these conversations, so why don’t we take it now?
It feels like being an activist around here is a “niche” thing, but it is the complete opposite; it concerns all of us and now, more than ever, we need a strong form of collective unity to re/write history. We need to be connected to fight the fear that is dividing us more.
With my 8-year-old daughter, we took the opportunity to create a drawing and a collage of newspaper articles about what happened to the ReDress project in Nelson. I explained to her what it meant in the first place, and then told her that it had been vandalized. Our collage is not the greatest piece of art, and it is quite creepy too, but as her father walked through the door and asked us what we were doing the answer was clear: “re-writing Her-story”.
We want her to know and understand what is really going in her homeland, so she can grow up as an informed and activist citizen who’ll always do her best to help others.
This is also my hope for you and your families, my humble gift to the təmxʷulaʔxʷ, where I am so lucky to live.
Xochilt Ramirez was born in Nicaragua in 1988 during the Sandinista revolution. The fight for justice and freedom of expression was the background of her childhood. In 1990 her family moved back to Italy where she grew and studied Arts and Communications in Bologna. As winner of a grant for international students she lived in Spain in 2011 and Puerto Rico in 2012. In 2013 she moved to Canada with her family. While traveling, she never stopped writing. Now living in Nelson, she is dedicating her energy and time to art and activism. Xochilt dedicates her first English piece to the youth of this country: “You are the hope for a better future, called to fight the present historical and economic situation we live in. Never stop asking questions and with a critical mind, analyze the answers given to you.”