By Celine Ramos
Jaime Black is a Canadian artist with Métis blood who presented the first installation of her REDress Project in 2009 as a way of bringing awareness to the hundreds of officially reported Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and Girls in Canada that have never received justice. Since then, hundreds of red dresses have been donated to her from friends and family of women and girls who have gone missing or whose lives were taken without any legal repercussions. These pieces are then displayed in her installation to offer the public a means of connecting with the MMIW issue, and as a space of grieving.
While attending a conference in Germany on issues important to indigenous communities in Canada, Black heard Jo-Ann Episkenew, the then-director of Indigenous People’s Health Research Center at the University of Regina and Saskatchewan, speak about the hundreds of MMIW across Canada as well as the lack of official action to follow. She was also freshly inspired by a demonstration she witnessed in Bogotá, Colombia. There she found a group of women gathered in the city’s public square wearing striking red dresses to bring attention to the issues they were facing with inaction and apathy toward their missing or murdered family and friends, Black was given what she refers to as a vision of red dresses. From that moment, she knew she had to bring her vision to fruition in order to do her part for the cause.
Black’s installation has been erected on the campuses of several Canadian universities and made its U.S. debut in 2019 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Each dress is displayed across a designated area within the installation’s temporary home, typically in areas where they can be stumbled upon by passersby who may not know anything about MMIW. Some installations are presented in indoor areas where people can choose to view the installation as a means of remembrance.
Through the display of the emblematic red dresses, Black aims to bring attention to the fact that hundreds of women and girls have been officially reported as missing or murdered without any justice brought to their families. She hopes to give the public the impetus to start asking the questions that need to be asked and to demand that the increasing MMIW epidemic stops being brushed under the rug. The fact is, the true number of women and girls who have gone missing is impossible to know because one, the problem has been going on for hundreds of years starting with colonization periods, and two, there’s a strong historical precedent for outside governments not supporting indigenous issues which has led to rampant mistrust of law enforcement. That means that they’re not always likely to allow law enforcement’s involvement as their efforts may ultimately be futile. Although the number of dresses displayed in Black’s installations pales in comparison to the number of women and girls who have never received justice, the visual impact of the project isn’t to be underestimated.
Black hopes her installations offer a space for friends and family of MMIW to grieve. Ahstanskiaki Sandra Catherine Manyfeathers, a student at the University of Calgary who has firsthand experience with MMIW through her mother and sister, said of having the REDress installation on her campus: “When I stand next to a red dress that’s hanging, I stop to acknowledge it because to me, it represents somebody’s life that was taken from us…”. Manyfeathers believes that the project is a powerful catalyst for awareness.
Reading vast arrays of numbers and data can cause valuable information to lull into meaninglessness. That’s where the importance of art like Black’s REDress Project comes into play. Visual representation initiates a sense of connection from people who aren’t directly connected to the issue of MMIW like Manyfeathers. The sight of hundreds of red dresses is so jarring that it demands an emotional response, but that emotional response is a personal experience that transcends what can be gained from reading data or hearing an informational speech. That visceral experience arises from within in such a way that it could never be disguised as anything but what it is: A recognition of the horror that so many women and girls are going missing, or worse, and no one’s receiving any repercussions for it. Such a response is disarming and, as Black puts it, confrontational, but these truths aren’t meant to be convenient. Being confrontational and provocative is an essential tool for translating information at a very human level.
Black has said that the chosen color red in her installation has many meanings. It’s not only a color that relates to violence and heightened emotion, but it’s the color of lifeblood. “It connects all of us”. She hopes that different peoples can bring their own meanings to the color, and thus, it’s an invitation for people with different backgrounds to connect on the MMIW issue. Black especially loves for the project to be displayed in an outside setting where it attracts a wider spectrum of people and can ‘destroy barriers’. Red is also said to be the only color that the spirits can see. By wearing/using the color red they hope to guide these spirits back home.
How Red Dresses Became a Symbol for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
These Haunting Red Dresses Memorialize Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women
A Place for the Taken: The REDress Project Gives a Voice to Missing Indigenous Women
‘When I see a red dress, I think of my sisters’
The REDress Project -- Jaime Black