University exhibits ‘REDress Project’
Indigenous artist Jaime Black and students in the CAST program curate a “REDress” installation for the Brandeis campus.
Red dresses hang from the trees on campus. Empty, they move with the wind like flags that draw attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and children who have been lost to violence. The “REDress Project” is an art installation created by artist Jaime Black. Black, who is of mixed Anishinaabe and Finnish descent, creates art that is representative of Indigenous experiences. She describes her art as being “engaged with memory, identity, place and resistance, and grounded in an understanding of the body and the land as sources of cultural and spiritual knowledge,” according to her bio on the Women’s Studies Research Center webpage.
Black spoke about her project at an artist lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 9 hosted by WSRC and the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation program. The project is currently on exhibit at the University, curated by students in the CAST program in collaboration with Black herself.
Before the lecture, CAST director Prof. Toni Shapiro-Phim introduced Black, describing her creative work as “immediate, urgent, stunning and heart rending, while also contemplative.” She continued, “It’s a call for attention to the horrific and unconscionable violence committed against Indigenous women and girls in North America, and a call to action. It has a profound impact on many students.”
Across North America, over a thousand Indigenous women have gone missing over the years and nothing is being done to stop the violence. “Families are crying out and no one is listening,” she said. This social issue is what gave Black the idea for the “REDress Project,” named for the red dresses at the center of the art piece, as well as for the word “redress,” which means to remedy or set right. Not only do the empty red dresses serve as a reminder of the lost women, acknowledging both their “absence and presence,” but they also serve to raise awareness of violence against Indigenous women and allow for a “reclaiming of presence and power,” Black explained. The “REDress Project” works to combat the violence and erasure against Indigenous peoples that dates back to colonialism and continues to persist today, she explained, adding, “We are also speaking out against the violence. We are not passive victims. We are standing here today, we are doing this work together and we are not forgetting about what is going on.”
The public displays of the “REDress” installations help to create a community of support for the families and communities who have lost loved ones. “I wanted to be able to really bring through the voices of these families and put the issue of violence against Indigenous women on a more public stage,” Black said. Over the past 10 years that Black has been working on this project, her installations have been featured at a number of locations across Canada, and more recently, throughout the U.S. as well.
Black said that the “REDress Project” has helped to raise awareness and start both discussions and even a government inquiry about violence against Indigenous women in Canada. “It became much, much more public knowledge that Indigenous women and girls were just at such high risk in our country,” she said. Black added that she hopes that as the project spreads through the United States, that similar conversations will be started here as well. “I think that work [of starting these conversations] is so important and I think it’s always the first step of truth telling; of bringing those stories out from under the carpet; of speaking out about what’s happening.”
Now, Brandeis has an exhibit of its own. Students in the CAST program worked with Black and Shapiro-Phim to design and implement the campus “REDress” installation, which includes both red dresses hanging outside and an indoor photography exhibit of Black’s artwork.
Alanna Shea ’22, one of the CAST students, explained the importance of bringing the project to campus in an interview with the Justice. “We don’t have much of an Indigenous identity here. We don’t have much space that’s left for Indigenous people to come together … We talk a lot about different identities and those are as important, but we also need to talk about Indigenous identities specifically at Brandeis,” she said, adding that particularly with a school situated on Massachusetts, Nipmuc and Pawtuckett land, incorporating education about Indigenous history at the University is important. Shea said that education and awareness are large parts of the “REDress Project” and were also key in her and her classmates’ understanding when curating the campus installation.
For instance, Shea’s CAST class did a 21 day equity challenge to learn more about Indigenous peoples’ lives through different lenses and met with Black and other Indigenous speakers. She said that they learned about environmental issues, where Indigenous knowledge of the land continues to be ignored. They also learned about racial issues –– like the sexual assault and murder of Indigenous women, how Indigenous cultures were “wiped away” in boarding schools and thousands of children have been murdered and gone missing and how Indigenous people are more likely to be incarcerated based on race. “I think that’s more than a shame. I think it’s devastating and almost evil because it’s really repressing them and we’re hurting ourselves,” Shea said.
“I think [the “REDress Project”] displays the intersection of environmentalism, political ideologies, women’s rights and queer issues,” Shea said. “These intersections make this exhibit more worthwhile. So the more you can understand, the more you can understand the exhibit … [It’s] a lot more complex than how it appears on the surface.”
In order to implement the campus project, the students divided into groups. Shea was part of a group that decided on the locations that the dresses would be hung on campus. She explained that her group wanted the dresses to be placed in spaces where people, including students, professors and administration, gather. Starting at the top of campus at the Rabb steps, the dresses are hung from trees descending all the way down the hill.
Shea noted that the locations they picked also have a subtle political focus; they mimic the noticeable locations of the emergency blue lights on campus, hinting at the sexual violence that Indigenous women continue to face. “We just tried to analyze which locations would be most powerful,” Shea said. “Part of the beauty of the art is that these dresses get damaged, that these dresses blow in the wind; they almost dance in the wind like they’re alive, and it’s like they’re their own extension of a human identity.”
Another CAST student, Sarah Kim, was part of a group that planned rituals connected to the “REDress Project.” The first ritual the class performed was a transition between exhibits in the Kniznick Gallery where Black’s new photography exhibition “between us” is displayed, Kim wrote in an email to the Justice.
The previous exhibition in the gallery was “We the People (Our Love Will See Us Through),” featuring paintings and handmade clothing by Marla McLeod. According to the gallery webpage, McLeod’s “exhibition [explored] the false and pervasive narratives surrounding Black bodies, while re-presenting the historical figures and characterizations of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and the harmful stereotype of the ‘mammy.’”
To respectfully transition, Kim wrote that the class discussed “the motif of dresses that is seen in both exhibits” and “drew dresses with colored pencils based on their own identities, as if they were designing their own transformative art pieces.”
The other ritual the class performed took place before they hung the first of the red dresses. “We burned some rosemary incense and made bracelets with red beads and strings, sort of connecting ourselves to the installation and each other. In the background, we played some music by an Indigenous artist,” Kim wrote.
“between us” continues to explore the themes of the “REDress Project,” as well as draw on the Indigenous connection to nature and the land, Black said in her lecture. For instance, in one of her photo series called “They Tried to Bury Us,” Black interacts physically with the land. The land and water “hold memory,” she said, “and both of those things remember before the onset of colonization and before patriarchal violence was a reality. The land remembers when humans lived in balance with it.”
Another one of her photo series explores nature as well, but with a focus on water. Black showed a series of photos of red ribbons entwined in running water. The “powerful” color red in the ribbons symbolizes similar themes to the red dresses. “The water is like our blood, the rivers are our veins. The ribbon is kind of illustrating that and then also showing that interconnection between my body and the body of water,” she said, also adding that red is a traditionally ceremonial color in many different cultures.
Recently, Black has also begun to explore re-embodying the red dresses in her artwork, taking portraits of herself wearing the garments. In doing so, she explained that she created a “spiritual interconnection” and “shifted from seeing the dress as disempowerment to reclaiming space.”
“Jaime Black’s ‘REDress Project’ is a visually stunning way of drawing attention to the glaring but often overlooked crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Kim wrote to the Justice.