Over 600 aboriginal women are reported to be missing
Article: Paige Kreutzwieser – Staff Writer
Walking through University of Regina last week, you may have noticed something different – something red.
Hanging from each floor were red dresses, elegantly suspended by individual hangers, and dangling over the banisters for any passer-by to admire. Outside, red dresses moved in the wind hanging from trees around the University of Regina Green. Or maybe you saw them lined up, illuminating the pathway into the university’s Research and Innovation Centre (RIC).
What you may not know is their importance.
“To dress the intersectionality of sexism and racism, and how it is perpetuating this,” explained Jayson Derow, a partner and advocate in organizing the REDress Project installation on campus.
Derow, a fourth-year Human Justice student at the University of Regina, had heard about a Winnipeg based artist, Jaime Black, in a few of his women’s and gender studies classes. In April of this year, Derow and a couple classmates formed a committee to work toward bringing Black’s exhibit to Saskatchewan.
The REDress Project exposes the social issues surrounding Aboriginal women in Canada. “We have 65 to 70 red dresses hanging up throughout the RIC area and each dress represents a missing and murdered Aboriginal woman,” said Derow.
But what Derow wants people to know is that number of dresses hanging around the university just scratches the surface of the statistics he has learned as a student.
“There is reported over 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but that is only what’s reported,” adding that there is actually over 2,000 missing Aboriginal women that are not reported.
“We have 65 dresses and that’s powerful enough. So imagine seeing 2,000 dresses.”
So why the colour red?
“Red has always been a powerful colour for me, personally,” said Black, the creator of the exhibit, “I think it is a very sacred colour, but it is also the colour of life blood,” explaining that the project portrays that women give life and the connections we share as humans have this life blood.
According to Black, it also explains what women (especially ones of Aboriginal heritage) are going through on a day to day basis in the country, adding the colour red’s strong connotations of violence.
To Derow, the colour red carries many meanings, one being “in nature, you don’t really see that colour around much until it’s that transition stage.”
“It’s an inescapable conclusion that we can’t go into the past and change things. But rather we can bring about this awareness and bring about change.”
An activist with an interest in Aboriginal culture and politics, the Métis artist says that her desire for bringing about change and her artistic background became a match made in heaven.
“I wanted to use skills as an artist to further the understanding of social issues that are around us.”
The REDress had its inaugural show at the University of Winnipeg in 2011, where she was able to get the school’s women’s and gender studies program to assist. Since then, Black said people are contacting her with requests to expose her exhibit.
Black admits this project didn’t begin on an easy road.
“I’m working from the ground up, so it’s always a struggle.”
But, Black can be happy that the road has led her to things such as taking the exhibition internationally to London, England.
Black is satisfied with the response she is getting for the REDress Project.
“I think it’s always an amazing thing every time I do this exhibition. Different people come together as a community, share their strengths and their stories and can start working together.”
She is especially happy with the result of the set-up in the RIC.
“Everybody walks through here and they wonder, ‘Why are [the dresses] here?’ It gives people an opportunity to educate themselves and it gets people to educate other people.”
Derow is also impressed with the response they have been getting throughout the week the project was displayed at the university, but he hoped there was more.
“I just wish more people who aren’t already aware of the issue to start coming up and asking more questions. . .what we want to do is break down the barrier between that and start bringing everyone together.”
“It is not just an Aboriginal issue, it’s a human issue.”
The dresses for the project are donated (by communities and family members of the missing) to Black, where she hangs them throughout the exhibition location. She currently has over 300 dresses in her collection, and the size of the site dictates the amount of dresses used. “I’ve done installations of eight before, and in a gallery that takes up a lot of space. But they need a lot of space to breathe.”
A panel discussion for the project was held at the university, with the aid of the campus’ Aboriginal Student Centre (ASC). Derow felt the discussion went well, but once again had a bittersweet feeling.
“It’s frustrating because people who come to those kind of discussions are already aware of the issues and what this project is trying to elicit is trying to bring people in that aren’t aware.”
Derow said they would like to focus on increasing the male and Caucasian population attendance at events like this.
“It’s a Caucasian majority and Aboriginal minority [in this country] so we have to combine those ties and look past those differences and come together as a collective and say hey, this is a problem and we need to fix this now.”
Derow admitted that getting the funding and sponsorship for this project was a struggle. He felt he was getting the run around from the government bodies he was contacting, so he turned towards the ASC.
“[The ASC management] put us on the right way and we started rolling from there. They were a huge asset to us in putting us in the right direction.”
Derow hopes to take some time before indulging in another project like this, but says he does have offers from fellow students to do another event.
“I’ll take two days break and then we will discuss it,” he joked, admitting he wants to continue to bring awareness to the university on other social issues and injustices.
Black is currently working on more intimate projects on the side, but the new mom said that many of her projects do have this personal connection for her. “But the personal becomes political when you are facing social ideas.”
“So I hope that by plumbing the depths of my own experience, I can expose some of the experiences of other women.”
In 2014, the exhibition will soon be installed in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in her hometown of Winnipeg.