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Exhibition shines light on 'invisible catastrophe' of missing and murdered women

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Walking With Our Sisters, a commemorative art installation project at the Urban Shaman Gallery, seeks to honour to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by displaying more than 1,760 donated moccasin tops, or vamps.

CRYSTAL SCHICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Walking With Our Sisters, a commemorative art installation project at the Urban Shaman Gallery, seeks to honour to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by displaying more than 1,760 donated moccasin tops, or vamps. Photo Store

An estimated 824 indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in Canada since 1961. The actual number is almost certainly higher.

There wouldn't be space in this column to list every name, even if we knew them all. A library's worth of books couldn't tell every story, much less scratch the surface of what might have been. Words can't heal the scars that run through each new generation coming up without its mothers, grandmothers, daughters and aunts, who watch their sisters slip away, stolen and seemingly unnoticed. Words can't bring them back.

When words fail, people turn elsewhere -- to art, music, and ceremony, to direct action and most importantly, to one another, to the urgent business of remembering and taking care. In commemorating Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, Walking with Our Sisters reflects each of these responses.

Built around an immense installation of hand-embellished moccasin "vamps" or "uppers," one unfinished pair for each of the 824 lost women and girls, the project is the combined effort of more than 1,500 artists, craftspeople, musicians, elders and volunteers. The result is something beyond the scope of a conventional exhibition.

The air inside Urban Shaman is sweet and slightly dense from burning sage and the floors are cloaked in swaths of fabric. Visitors take off their shoes as they enter, silence phones, put away cameras. A volunteer invites you to take a pinch of dry tobacco to carry as you make your way around the exhibition, moving clockwise.

Elements of ritual help create a solemn, respectful atmosphere, but they also focus our attention, charging our movement through the space with gravity and meaning. They delineate a sanctified, safe place, one set apart from the world outside, but they also help ground us. They give us something tangible to hold onto in the face of overwhelming loss.

Beyond their sheer number, the vamps' diversity of materials, styles, and subject matter is staggering. Embellishments range from traditional motifs -- floral and geometric patterns, medicine wheels and inuksuit -- to landscape imagery, scenes of contemporary urban life, and abstract designs, twinkling auroras and an East Side Vancouver hotel sign. Many bear names. Some feature small photographs and painted portraits. Glittery pink beadwork tiaras adorn tiny, unfinished child-sized shoes. Another pair teems with precise rows of black gibberish text: a scattering of red letters spell out, "There are no words."

Made by artists of all ages, inclinations and skill levels, the vamps are engrossing on an individual level and deeply affecting, but their full impact comes with a wider view. Looking across the gallery, they form tight rows and phalanxes that flow around the space like running water. Walking side-by-side, it's possible to imagine each woman rising up in turn, restored, to take her place in a silent crowd of women, each unique, unfinished, and each received with tenderness and honour. The gallery couldn't hold them all.

Walking with Our Sisters is a gesture of remembrance and love, but it's also motivated by grief and outrage. Eight hundred and twenty-four women and girls disappeared in plain sight while too many in a position to help either didn't watch or didn't care. Each unfinished pair of moccasins speaks to an individual, insurmountable loss. Together they give visible form to a largely unseen and unacknowledged catastrophe.

Exiting the gallery, I return the shreds of loose tobacco I'd been holding, letting them slip silently from my fingers. Bundled up, I tumble into bright light and bitter cold, slightly dazed with the scent of sage rising from my skin. I think I can remember more, see more clearly, but for a long time afterwards no words come.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2014 C17

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