Art

Q&A: Jaime Black, the artist hanging red dresses around U of T campus

Q&A: Jaime Black, the artist hanging red dresses around U of T campus

This week, University of Toronto students might have spotted something eerie on their way to class: more than 100 red dresses, hanging from tree branches across campus and blowing in the wind like crimson ghosts. The dresses symbolize the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, and they’re part of the REDress project, on display now. Winnipeg-based Métis artist Jaime Black has brought the installation to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and campuses across the country over the past seven years. We asked her about the project’s inspiration and impact.

You started hanging red dresses around the University of Winnipeg in 2011. What inspired the idea?
Several years ago, I attended a conference in Germany where people were speaking about Indigenous issues in Canada. Only one of them was an Indigenous woman: author Jo-Ann Episkenew. When she said that there were over 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, which was the reported number at the time, you could hear a pin drop in that room. That’s when  I got the idea: it just flashed in my mind to put up empty red dresses. When I came home to Winnipeg, I got together with the University of Winnipeg’s Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies for my first large-scale show, and we put up six dresses. The community has donated the dresses for every installation.

Why red dresses specifically?
Red is a really powerful colour in Indigenous communities. It’s the colour of life and blood. It’s what connects all of us to each other. It’s a very sacred colour, and it also represents the violence that these women are facing. When I was 17, I read a powerful book by Maria Campbell called The Book of Jessica. It’s about a Métis woman’s experience moving to an urban environment. About a year ago, I realized the book cover is a painting of an empty red dress. Obviously, the image has been in my head for a very long time.

Did you identify with the book—or did you grow up in a city?
I grew up in Thunder Bay and moved to Winnipeg when I was 12. My grandfather is Métis, but I did not have a large Métis community around me growing up. When I was preparing the first exhibition, the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies helped me make connections. I talked to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women about respect and representation, and ran some ideas by them.

What’s the significance of the locations you chose around U of T?
One of the important sites is a traditional meeting space called Taddle Creek, which is now Philosopher’s Walk. Hundreds of years ago, it was a trade site and fishing camp for Indigenous communities. It’s now covered and landscaped over. I thought it would be interesting to bring an Indigenous presence back to that space.

How have people reacted to the installations?
People feel haunted by the dresses. They feel moved by their presence. It becomes a space for us to educate those who may not know what’s going on, and it opens up a space for people who are experiencing violence to share their own stories. At events that we’ve had at campuses, families have come and told their own stories—those moments, where we’re all standing together, are really amazing.

What do you hope the project achieves?
Hopefully, a family that’s missing a loved one can feel supported, and maybe have a place to mourn. It gives a material presence to something that otherwise is absent except for in their own hearts. Because the red dress is such a striking image, it stays in the back of people’s mind. When I did a tour of the installation at the University of Winnipeg, a police officer who attended had tears in his eyes. He said he goes to work every day and hears about this, but had never felt the impact until he walked through the dresses. That sort of impact is not measurable, but it’s pretty powerful, and it might change the way he responds to a family who’s looking for their daughter next time.

You’ve asked the public to participate by hanging red dresses in their homes or businesses. Why’s that?
I don’t want to be the sole proprietor of anything, especially something that can build conversations all across Canada. My goal with the work is for it to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s about people using their own talent and creativity to interact with the symbol and create connections in their own communities.