Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project
Lee-Ann Martin, Guest Curator and Shawna Dempsey, Co-Executive Director, MAWA
Resilience rebukes the historical erasure of Indigenous women's bodies and the exclusion of their art. Images by 50 First Nations, Inuit and Métis women artists embody the multitude of connections and contradictions that constitute contemporary Indigenous identities. In inner cities and on highways, sites from which too many women have disappeared, the presence of Indigenous women is made highly visible, individualized (beyond statistics), celebrated. This project is a physicalized reminder of buried histories and diverse contemporary perspectives. Indigenous women artists present their ideas, their visions, themselves.
Racism and exclusion have long been entwined in the historical development of Canada. Within Indigenous populations across the country, the long-term effects of racist and genocidal strategies include high rates of suicide, alcohol and drug addictions, the horrific atrocities of residential schools, mental disorders, poverty, contaminated land and water, internalized violence and imprisonment. As we look beyond Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations of 2017, this project is pivotal at this moment in this country's history.
For far too long, Indigenous women have been misunderstood (their powerful status misinterpreted to conform to early Settler gender models), disenfranchised (Indigenous women, as well as men, did not have the right to vote federally until 1960), rendered invisible (Indigenous women lost their status and rights when they married outside of their communities until 1985) and, in horrifying numbers, murdered (Canada’s Minister for the Status of Women estimates there could be as many as 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country). Furthermore, the experiences of Indigenous women in urban centres have largely been misrepresented or entirely ignored.
What is resilience?
Most often, resilience is narrowly defined in the dictionary as the ability to recover from and cope with adversity. Within the Indigenous discourse, resilience usually refers to the ability of Indigenous people to overcome the adversarial and enduring impacts of colonialism. In a seminal treatise, Indigenous art scholar Jolene Rickard asserts:
As part of an ongoing strategy for survival, the work of Indigenous artists needs to be understood through the clarifying lens of sovereignty and self-determination, not just in terms of assimilation, colonization and identity politics. [i]
However, long before the European invasion of the continent, resilience was a central tenet within Indigenous traditional knowledge and customary practices, and it still is. For example, in the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) language, the word yakaonnhahniron is understood as "they have durable lives – they outlast.” It defines the long-term adaptability of Indigenous cultures to changing environmental and social landscapes. [ii]
The Resilience billboard exhibition is a response to Call to Action #79 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report: the integration of “Indigenous history, heritage values, and memory practices into Canada’s national heritage and history.” The call supports collaborations among Aboriginal peoples and the arts community to develop a reconciliation framework for Canadian heritage and commemoration. This project is Mentoring Artists for Women's Art - MAWA’s answer to that call: a creative act of reconciliation, and a public celebration and commemoration of the work of Indigenous women artists, who are still vastly under-represented, not only in positions of power in commerce and politics, but within the art world as well.
Billboards are a powerful means for reaching many diverse people. The Arbitron National In-Car Study for 2009 found that people notice outdoor billboard advertising, remember the message and are influenced by it. [iii] In busy urban areas, people in transit – by car, bus, bicycle, on foot – can view the images repeatedly. Billboards provide unrivalled visibility and, when strategically placed in city centres, can reach thousands of people per day. This is essential for this project; it is essential that all Canadians engage in the national public dialogue with respect to reconciliation.
The images in this billboard exhibition prompt us to rethink and reshape the narrow dictionary definition of resilience. For these Indigenous women artists, resilience is embodied as endurance, adaptability and sovereignty in relation to customary cultural practices, contemporary identities, the land, and the impact of colonial practices and strategies.
The media used and intent of the artworks are complex and diverse, like the women themselves. This large, multi-vocal national project considers the relationships of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women with land, place, customary practices and contemporary issues, and opens new perspectives on unexamined and often overlooked histories, places and ideas. The works reflect the shifting intersections between contemporary and customary practices. Taken together, the billboard images recall the past, articulate the present and invoke the future, from each artist's perspective.
[i] Jolene Rickard, "Sovereignty: A Line in the Sand," Aperture 139 (Summer 1995): 51.
[ii] Niawen’kó:wa (thank you very much) to David Kanatawakhon-Maracle for his assistance with the Mohawk language.
[iii] Steve Olenski, "Arbitron National In-Car Study," Forbes Magazine, October 10, 2011.