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Moccasin tops are for walks women will never take

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Walking With  Our Sisters is made up of more  than 1,700  moccasin tops  to represent  the unfinished lives of  indigenous  missing and murdered  women  and girls  across Canada.

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Walking With Our Sisters is made up of more than 1,700 moccasin tops to represent the unfinished lives of indigenous missing and murdered women and girls across Canada.

It isn't exactly how the old saying goes, but in this case, the adjustment is appropriate:

Many hands make enlightening work.

The touring exhibit Walking With Our Sisters: A Commemorative Art Installation for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Canada combines one woman's vision with the creative labour of hundreds to create an emphatic and emotional tribute to more than 800 women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing in this country.

The exhibit, which is on display at Urban Shaman Gallery until April 12, represents an unparalleled social media-driven effort to shed a new kind of light on an important but too-often-ignored Canadian crisis.

The installation consists of 1,726 moccasin tops, also known as "uppers" or "vamps," which were crafted and donated by nearly 1,400 artists and concerned individuals from Canada, the United States and several countries abroad.

Each pair represents a woman or girl who is missing or murdered. The vamps are intentionally not sewn into moccasins because they represent the unfinished lives of the women they honour.

It's an unconventional way to confront a very difficult issue, says the exhibit's creator.

"It's a way to engage the community without the aggressiveness that politics can sometimes have," says Christi Belcourt, the Ontario-based Métis artist who used social-media connections to turn her artistic vision into a touring-exhibit reality. "What we're doing is honouring the women's lives and saying that their lives had value, and have value, to the people who loved them in this lifetime. I don't think anybody can disagree with that, and it's a way to open up a dialogue and let people feel empowered to speak about this issue.

"When you see the outpouring of care and love that has been put into this work, it's hard to walk away and not feel compelled to talk about it. It gives people a vocabulary to be able to speak about the issue."

Belcourt explains that after coming up with the concept for the display a couple of years ago, she contacted a few friends on Facebook to see if they thought the idea was worthwhile. The reaction, she recalls, was overwhelmingly positive.

"So I put a Facebook group together, just to see if the interest would broaden, and within a week there were already 2,000 members in the group, asking how we could do this," she says. "Within a month, there was over 5,000, and within a couple of months it was over 10,000. I think it's over 12,000 now on the Facebook-group page, so clearly, a lot of people feel the same way about this issue.

"And what's fascinating to me is that the vamps have come from all over the place. The majority come from Canada, of course, but 333 pairs out of the 1,726 we received were from the United States and about a dozen came from overseas. What that says to me is that there are a lot of people who feel touched by this issue, and they want to do something to try and help."

Walking With Our Sisters relies heavily on local community input and the guidance of elders, and incorporates traditional ceremony into its daily ritual. Viewers of the exhibit are asked to remove their shoes and to smudge before entering, and are invited to carry ceremonial tobacco with them as they walk through the carefully positioned array of moccasin tops.

The vamps vary greatly in terms of artistry and thematic elements -- some are rudimentary, others feature intricate beadwork; some bear traditional images of wildlife and foliage, while others offer more overt political statements, including photos, names and dates related to specific missing or murdered women.

One pair features beadwork of a female eye on each vamp, accompanied by a familiar name-tag image that reads, "HELLO, MY NAME IS... who cares."

Belcourt says she continues to receive donations of newly created vamps, and has commitments for the exhibit to keep touring for years.

"We don't have any government funding for this. We're doing it all through social media, through crowdsourcing," she says. "The artwork was crowdsourced, the fundraising was crowdsourced, the tour is crowdsourced. We aren't seeking places for this to go; we're waiting to be invited into communities. And we're booked until 2019."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 G11

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