A collection of empty red dresses serves as a catalyst to examine a critical national issue in a new art installation at Neechi Commons.
The REDress Project, created by local artist Jaime Black, serves as a haunting visual reminder of hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
Black began her project several years ago and since then has received more than 400 red dress donations from all corners of the country.
In the Neechi Commons exhibit, about a dozen dresses are suspended from the ceiling, creating the illusion that they’re floating in space. The exhibit opened Sept. 19 and will remain on display until Oct. 21 at 865 Main St.
"I have aboriginal blood in my family. The project came up in my art practice naturally through a few different things," Black said.
"My grandfather, who is on the aboriginal side of my family, was sick and passing away. Subconsciously, I started moving more in the direction of trying to understand and become involved in my aboriginal heritage."
Around the same time, Black attended an international event that left a lasting impression.
"I was in Bogotá, Colombia, at a performance art conference. It was really inspiring being there. About 200 local women did a performance protest in the main square as a way of drawing attention to people in their families who had gone missing," she said.
"It was very, very powerful and it went on for about six hours. It just gave me chills. I was going to give up being an artist before that. But when I saw that, I realized that I needed to use my creativity to further some of the social issues that are rumbling here in Canada."
And that’s exactly what she’s done, as The REDress Project has toured the country for the past two years.
Following its stint at Neechi Commons, the visual art installation will travel to its first international exhibit at a conference in London, England. It is also scheduled to appear in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights after construction is complete.
"Because it’s a public art project, I try to have it in spaces that aren’t regular gallery spaces, so it has a way of impacting or enticing people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in art or aboriginal issues," Black said.
"They ask ‘Why are the dresses there?’ and that opens up the door. They have a visceral response to the dress being there before they even ask that question. I think it hits people on an emotional level that allows them to be open to listening about the issue itself."
In the future, she hopes to display the dresses in Ottawa on Parliament Hill.
"Aboriginal women face rates of violence that indicate we are in a culture and a country that still has a lot of latent racism and colonialism," she said.
"It’s really important that we educate people around those issues and have them start looking at things in a different light."