[Revisiting my September 5, 2022 post and The Red Dress Exhibit: For three days, ending September 11, the FirstOntario Performing Arts Center in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, was home to Celebration of Nations 2022, an annual festival honoring “the heritage, culture and achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples of Turtle Island and beyond.” This year’s theme, “Honouring Our Matriarchs: Restoring The Balance,” was chosen as a reminder of the essential role women have played – and continue to play – in the survival and nurturing of Indigenous culture and traditions.
Under the leadership and inspiration of its Artistic Director, Michele-Elise Burnett, this multi-faceted program included a re-imagined presentation of The Red Dress Exhibit that I had visited just a week earlier under blue skies and amidst the trees and greenspace of ArtPark in Lewiston, NY. The Celebration of Nations’ presentation of the exhibit could hardly have been more dissimilar – indoors, encased within a dimly-lit second-floor theater, intentionally confined by black walls and drapes, and punctuated by solitary red dresses suspended from hangers and artificially illuminated from above.
“If Only These Dresses Could Tell Their Story” is the subtitle of both Red Dress exhibits. Aided by detailed narratives of the murdered and missing indigenous women, girls and two-spirit individuals, and enhanced by interpretative material, the thirteen empty dresses do, in fact, communicate profound and heartbreaking messages. While I found the outdoor setting – with living trees, verdant landscape, and flowing river – more conducive to a hopeful, forward-looking, and inspiring message, they both are intensely moving and evocative.
My original posting – displaying the dresses suspended from trees on a sun-drenched day at Lewiston’s ArtPark – will be supplemented below with the stark but poignantly beautiful images of the Red Dresses as viewed in the darkened and shadowy confines of FirstOntario PAC. Please feel free to comment on whether the two distinct settings speak to you in different ways, or, perhaps, if the silence of the Red Dresses overwhelms the “white noise” of their surroundings.]
On September 2, I visited ArtPark, in Lewiston, New York, to experience the first of a three-day program entitled “The Red Dress Exhibit.” The exhibit featured thirteen empty Red Dresses – each unique and stunning – created by 13 Indigenous Peoples from the Western New York and Niagara regions.
As explained by the exhibit’s producer, Michelle-Elise Burnett: “The exhibit is intended to increase awareness for the epidemic of the ongoing horrific systemic racial crimes targeting Indigenous women and girls; to remember the lost lives of the victims; to teach; to give Indigenous women a voice; to inspire a new cross-cultural generation based on inclusivity, compassion, love; and, to collectively offer the MMIWG our love, gratitude create a safe, nurturing and welcoming environment for Indigenous Peoples.”
To help place the horrors of this bi-national scandal into perspective, consider the following statistics compiled by Kenny Lee Lewis (a member of the Steve Miller Band for over 40 years), one of the musicians who performed on September 2:
A preliminary study by Canadian police found that indigenous women — 4 percent of Canada’s female population — made up nearly 25 percent of its female homicide victims in 2012.
A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence.
In the year leading up to the study, 39.8 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women had experienced violence, including 14.4 percent who had experienced sexual violence.
Overall, more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.
I fear that any attempt by me to provide a narrative regarding the 13 Red dresses will do a disservice to the individual MMIWG, their families, and their communities. So – with minimal descriptions – I will let the images speak for themselves (and apologize for not having pictures of each of the beautiful and provocative dresses).
[Michelle-Elise Burnett (on the left) holds the dress prepared by domestic violence survivor Mary Annette Clause while Mary is interviewed by WKBW reporter Krizia Williams, broadcast 09-02-2022.]
And it’s back side:
[“Never Give Up!”]
[If I recall correctly, the sunflowers symbolize the source of light, and the ghostly handprints represent the unborn children of MMIWG.]