I thought that visiting an art gallery for a Women’s History Month exhibit would be a delightful way to spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I contemplated picking up a warm cup of tea and a scone to enjoy while I admired the art. I predicted how I would feel: delicately empowered, just enough to tilt my chin at a higher angle and straighten my shoulders a bit. What I was not at all expecting to leave with was the emotional impact that the REDress project had on me.
Jaime Black, a Métis indigenous artist, created a profound and stunning exhibit that draws attention to the horrifying violence against Native American women, specifically that there are “estimated 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada alone,” she stated in a recent interview. It is a “critical national issue,” as she says on the project’s website, theredressproject.org, that she feels has been wrongfully ignored. The exhibition is always comprised of many red dresses, each representing a missing or murdered indigenous woman. Black installed her first REDress exhibit at the University of Toronto but has since opened similar projects all over Canada and the US. She hopes to use the format of the installation to “evoke a presence through the marking of absence.”
In person, the installation, located at the National Museum of the American Indian, was an eerie blend of calming and haunting, especially in the outdoor exhibit, as my ears were immersed by the sound of moving water. As I walked further into the space, I began to see the dresses. Ranging in color from cherry to garnet, they hung on thin black poles, dotting the expansive exhibit. There were gowns of all types and sizes, including tiny ones that looked like they might fit a two or three-year-old. Underneath the dresses, water gurgled as it made frothy collisions with deep gray rocks or poured gracefully from pool to pool.
I was awed by the simplicity of the exhibit, and the power and clarity of Black’s message. It was tranquilizing, yet entirely captivating.
After some walking, I sat down on the dark stones of the waterfall section, watching the dresses blow emptily in the breeze, feeling a strange sense of sadness, appreciating the artistry of the project. The exhibit was a masterpiece and an extremely important reminder of a sadly ignored issue. The dresses perfectly captured a strong sense of absence, and the water connected the exhibit to a fluid, natural feeling. Overall, the exhibition left me speechless. It took me a while to leave, but when I finally did, I had the strong urge to go back and watch the scarlet dresses for just a minute longer.
I would not only recommend this exhibit to everyone, but I urge them to make time to see it. Not only is it a powerful and transformative experience, but it is crucial for us to be aware of the message the artwork conveys.
The exhibition will be on display at the National Museum of the American Indian through March 31st.