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More than meets the eye here

Aboriginal artist's portraits combat racist stereotypes

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The photos are striking.

On the left is a portrait of an unsmiling Cree/Ojibway woman. "Welfare mom?" asks the white text above her head. Underneath her image is a challenge: "Look again."

On the right is a portrait of the same woman smiling, her eyes warm and friendly. It is Althea Guiboche, "Mother, daughter, Bannock Lady, poet, activist and philanthropist, and bakes bannock in high heels."

It's just one of the sets of images that make up Perception, a photo series by local indigenous visual artist KC Adams that works to combat damaging stereotypes directed at First Nations Winnipeggers and perpetuated by both social and traditional media.

The series, which can be viewed online at, is based on an idea that had been percolating in Adams' mind for a few years, after someone close to her made a comment that struck her.

"She said, 'Outside of your family, I'd never really been around First Nations people before. I didn't realize they were so normal,'" Adams, 43, recalls. "She had been influenced by what she saw on the news and on the street. It made me really want to do a series on average Joes. People who are my friends. People who hold down jobs and have mortgages and paid their way through school. People who aren't getting represented in the media."

She didn't quite know how to tackle the project -- that is, until a few weeks ago, when a vitriolic 2010 Facebook comment made by Lorrie Steeves, wife of Winnipeg mayoral candidate Gord Steeves, hit the press.

That local controversy, coupled with the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., inspired Adams to revisit the idea for a project about racist stereotypes. "I felt like I needed to say something."

Adams got to work that weekend; by Monday, the project was live. The photos have been widely shared on social media; today, a Facebook group for Perception is over 4,000 members strong (see it at Adams has been flooded with requests from folks wanting to model for her.

For the initial run of photos, she enlisted her friends. Capturing the images was an emotional process.

"I wanted to show how racial stereotypes really hurt," she says. "So, I'd tell them things. 'What if someone called your boy a gangster?' Or 'What if someone called your child a "dirty little Indian?"' While I was talking to them, I took their picture. So they're actually reacting to these racial stereotypes.

"Then, I'd tell them to think about something wonderful that happened to them. Kim Wheeler was the first one. I told her, 'I want you to think about walking down the aisle with Jordan,' and a tremendous smile broke out on her face.

"On the left, you see the hurt. On the right, you see the reality."

Each model was asked to pick a hurtful label -- "Squaw," "Wannabe Indian," "Government mooch," "Drug dealer," etc. -- that would accompany their photo. "The labels came from them, not from me," Adams says. The only guideline was that they had to be short and grabby.

"I didn't want it to be more than two lines or a big block of text but I envisioned this work going out into the public." She'd like the campaign to have an offline presence on billboards and bus shelters.

For the photo on the right, she wanted to personalize it in a positive way. Jordan Wheeler is a Gemini Award winner and Jets season ticker holder; Leah Gazan is community leader and "circuit training goddess."

There are moms, dads, academics, homeowners, dog lovers, blood donors, artists, activists and golfers.

"I wanted to show the lighter side -- and that we're all human beings," Adams says. "I want people to throw away those first assumptions and realize how ridiculous they are. I think there's a lot of fear and misunderstanding around First Nations people -- especially in centres where there isn't a lot of aboriginal people."

To that end, she'd like to see the series turn into a national campaign.

"If I can change one person's mind, the work has done its job," she says. "I'm really proud of this work."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 G9

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