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Red dress project gets students thinking about violence against aboriginal women

By NATALIE SAMSON | OCT 22 2014

This fall at the University of Saskatchewan, dozens of red dresses hung loosely from railings, windows and ceilings in campus buildings, and swayed in trees around the campus green known as the Bowl. These weren’t the aspirational party dresses of shop windows or the slinky frocks of fashion magazines, but a public art installation called the REDress Project. The dresses served as an ominous reminder of Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Métis artist Jaime Black has toured REDress around university campuses and galleries in Canada and abroad since 2011. “I’ve always thought red was a really sacred colour. It’s the colour of lifeblood, and it’s also conversely the colour of blood spilled,” Ms. Black said in an interview with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. “There are connotations of the violence that these women are facing because they’re indigenous.”

Nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women were murdered or went missing in Canada from 1980 to 2012, according to a 2014 RCMP report. As of November 2013, 225 of these cases remain unsolved. Aboriginal women make up 4.3 percent of the overall Canadian female population but represent 16 percent of female homicides and 11.3 percent of missing women cases.

The Winnipeg-based multimedia artist made the trek to Saskatoon to suspend more than 110 donated dresses in high-traffic areas around the U of S campus. The installation process is central to the experience of the project. “During the unpacking I’m allowing people to critically think about the issue. … It’s amazing how powerful it is to see these dresses just hanging there, and when you walk by them it feels like you are walking by someone but no one is in them. It really works as a kind of visceral reminder of these women,” Ms. Black told Windspeaker in 2010.

It took four days to unpack, steam and place the dresses, says Tasha Hubbard, an assistant professor of literature at U of S and a member of the All Peoples University Collective, which brought the exhibit to campus. Ms. Hubbard says over those four days, the installation crew fielded dozens of questions about the work from curious passersby. So long as the audience is engaged, the exhibit is a success, she says. “We wanted to use the exhibit,” she says, to get students to realize that “this is everybody’s issue. This is a campus issue.”

The university has a role to play in stopping violence against indigenous women, says Ms. Hubbard. The best way to do this is to support relevant research and to commit to anti-racist education that challenges Aboriginal stereotypes in the media and elsewhere. “Change comes slowly, but it becomes easier the more people there are who support that change.”

Click on the photo to launch a slideshow of the installation:

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