Billboards across Canada have been plastered with color and drama this summer as a bold new project makes a powerful statement about the Indigenous experience.
Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project is a monumental installation from Winnipeg-based MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art). Curated by Lee-Ann Martin, it was created as a response to a portion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action, a 2015 report outlining several recommendations to help healing with Canada’s Indigenous community.
The project features 50 artworks, some old and some new, created by 50 female Indigenous artists and installed on 81 billboards across Canada. Its creators describe it as “a physicalized reminder of buried histories and diverse contemporary perspectives. Indigenous women artists present their ideas, their visions, themselves.”
Resilience pushes the work of female Indigenous artists who are typically underrepresented in the art world. The billboards also serve as a reminder of place and people, acting as land acknowledgments and counter-monuments reinserting an Indigenous presence into the landscape.
Perhaps most importantly, though, many of the works challenge stereotypes imposed upon First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women. These artists reclaim their own representations and shine a light on their realities, pushing back on outsider narratives.
Canada has relied heavily upon Indigenous culture for its tourism and national identity. Walk into any souvenir shop and you’re bound to find foreign-made dreamcatchers, miniature totem poles, and inuksuit sculptures lining the shelves alongside bottles of maple syrup and moose mugs. You’ll also find sculptures and paintings of Indigenous women, illustrated as figments of the past or mythical fantasies. Many of the installations found in Resilience work to dispel these stereotypes, framing Indigenous women and Indigenous art within a contemporary lens.
These are are few of the billboards worth seeking out.
The photographic installations of Shelley Niro and Dayna Danger both tackle representations of Indigenous women through asserting control over the portrayal of the female body.
Niro’s iconic work celebrates her mother’s femininity through an unconventional portrait entitled The Rebel (below) that is both fun and real. Dayna Danger’s Big’Uns – Adrienne, meanwhile, is a provocative piece that employs trophy hunting iconography alongside a glaringly strong, unapologetic naked female.
Rethinking Representation KC Adams and Ursula Johnson add text within their compositions to make their intent even clearer. In Perception Leona Star, KC Adams presents a side-by-side composition of the model in the piece, Leona, on one side confronting her stereotypes and the other revealing her reality.
Ursula Johnson’s installation highlights the humor so often (and necessarily) found within Indigenous communities. Poking fun at the way Native women have been portrayed as “scantily clad [ . . .] dressed with beads and feathers,” Johnson’s self-portrait shows her in a fringed hide vest and headband. The portrait (below) is overlaid with a quote by Shelley Niro that serves as a reminder of where we’ve been, where we are heading, and who will be leading the way.
“Our families suffered. Small histories disappeared. We continue through our own happiness,” it reads.
New Realities Installations by Inuit artists Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter and the late Annie Pootoogook challenge perceptions about Inuit lifestyles. Pootoogook’s Cape Dorset Freezer (below) captures daily life at the grocery store after decades of legislation and harmful policies forced Inuit people off the land and into communities reliant on overpriced foods shipped into the North.
On the other side of the coin, Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter’s That’s-A-Mori speaks to her own “cultural disconnect as an urban Inuk” raised in Edmonton, Alberta. Her piece places a spectral form in a very urban setting, a train platform, using “the ghost” as a visual metaphor for her detachment from her culture. Finding Resilience
Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe makes an impact through its hard-hitting visual, a woman with a large, sewn, diagonal scar running the length of her back. Belmore created this piece after hearing a CBC story about a Cree woman whose doctor had sewn beads into her sutures.
Of this work, Belmore states, “Some people interpret the image of this reclining figure as a cadaver. However, to me it is a wound that is on the mend. It wasn’t self-inflicted, but nonetheless, it is bearable.” “The Indigenous female body is the politicized body, the historical body. It’s the body that doesn’t disappear.”
Resilience provides a highly visible platform for these female artists to refute the realities imposed upon them. The women refuse to be named, to be misrepresented, to be silenced—and this summer, their billboards will ensure that message is heard.
Resilience takes place on 81 sites across Canada until August 1. The project’s website has an interactive map with their locations.