Powerful New Billboards Across Canada Celebrate Indigenous Female Artists

Dozens of artworks across the country are showcasing unsung talent and providing an important insight into the Indigenous experience.

Powerful New Billboards Across Canada Celebrate Indigenous Female Artists

Sherry Farrell Racette, “Ancestral Women Taking Back Their Dresses” (1990)

By Sherry Farrell Racette/Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

Lianne Marie Leda Charlie, “We Are The Land” (2015)

Lianne Marie Leda Charlie, “We Are The Land” (2015)

By Lianne Marie Leda Charlie/Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

Reclaiming Images

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.

Shelley Niro, “The Rebel” (shot in 1982, shown in 1989)

Shelley Niro, “The Rebel” (shot in 1982, shown in 1989)

By Shelley Niro/Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

Ursula Johnson, “Between My Body and Their Words” (2017)

Ursula Johnson, “Between My Body and Their Words” (2017)

By Ursula Johnson/Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

Annie Pootoogook, “Cape Dorset Freezer” (2005)

Annie Pootoogook, “Cape Dorset Freezer” (2005)

By Annie Pootoogook/Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

Rebecca Belmore, “Fringe” (2008)

Rebecca Belmore, “Fringe” (2008)

By Rebecca Belmore / Courtesy of Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project

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.

>> Next: 10 Brilliant U.S. Art Exhibitions Worth Traveling For This Summer

Aylan Couchie is a Nishnaabekwe interdisciplinary artist and writer hailing from Nipissing First Nation. She is a NSCAD University alumna and received her MFA in Interdisciplinary Art, Media and Design at OCAD University where she focused her thesis on reconciliation and its relationship to monument and public art. She’s currently in her second year of study at Queen’s University where she’s working on her PhD in the Cultural Studies program. Her written, gallery and public works explore the intersections of colonial/First Nations histories of place, culture and Indigenous erasure as well as issues of (mis)representation and cultural appropriation. She’s been the recipient of several awards including an “Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture” award through the International Sculpture Centre and a Premier’s Award through Ontario Colleges. She serves as the Chair of Native Women in the Arts and currently lives and works from her home community of Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario.
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