Arts

This summer, all roads lead to this groundbreaking exhibition of Indigenous Women artists

Check out some of the artwork appearing on 160+ billboards around the country this summer.

Starting June 1, 160+ billboards around the country will feature work by 50 artists

Meryl McMaster. Dream Catcher, 2015. The image will appear on billboards all over Canada this summer as part of the Resilience Project. (Resilience Project)

Whether they're driving on the Gardiner or the Sherwood Park Freeway, Canadians are going to see Bev Koski's artwork on giant billboards this summer — a picture of two action figures, Tonto and a "toy store Indian," both wearing orange and blue beaded chain mail all the way up to their plastic eyeballs.

"I think it will be a little puzzling," says Koski with a laugh, imagining what people will think as they zip past her billboards all summer. But as drivers keep on keeping on, they'll discover that Koski's photograph isn't out there alone, but part of a sprawling outdoor art exhibition launching June 1, one that's assembled 50 Indigenous women artists spanning multiple generations.

To see the complete show will, however, require a road trip, with everything appearing on 160+ billboards to August 1, wherever billboards are found. It's called Resilience, the National Billboard Exhibition Project.

'Taking space for Indigenous women'

The show's all but assembled a new Canadian canon, with a roster including Rebecca Belmore, Nadia Myre, Shelley Niro and the late Annie Pootoogook, alongside acclaimed emerging artists the likes of Meryl McMaster, recent winner of the Canadian Photography Institute's New Generation photography award.

We want our voices heard. Not from the way history has painted us, but the way we see ourselves.- KC Adams, artist

But the stated M.O. for the project, which originated as a direct response to one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's "Calls to Action," is a "public celebration and commemoration of the work of Indigenous women artists" — one that'll reach thousands in the next few months.

Bev Koski. Ottawa #1 and Bearlin #1, 2014. "The figures underneath are basically Native kitsch dolls," says the artist. "I was in Berlin with a friend and I was looking at all these toys in a toy store and in between all the wizards and dragons and stuff there was an Indian with a shield and a hatchet. I thought, this is really strange, to see these representations of what Native people are [...] and I wanted to take that back and in a weird way reassess and think about the fact that you do have to have armour, in a sense, in order to be resilient. Growing up in Canada, you have to be pretty strong to get through the amount of racism." (Resilience Project)

"I'm hoping that the Indigenous community sees this work and feels a sense of pride and hope," says KC Adams, a Winnipeg-based artist whose 2014 photo diptych, "Perception Leona Star" is part of the exhibition.  

The message underlying everything is, per the title, one of resilience. To evolve, to thrive, to outlast. The fact that it'll be presented on billboards, of both the digital and O.G. variety, doesn't just deliver the show directly to a an enormous audience.

Think of billboards like this one in Northern B.C. — a sign that commemorates missing and murdered Indigenous women while warning girls of a "killer on the loose!"  

"Killer on the Loose!' is the warning on a prominent billboard beside Highway 16 in northern B.C., where numerous young women have died or disappeared. (CBC )

Two of the Resilience billboards, in fact, will go up on B.C.'s Highway of Tears. There's a powerful counter narrative to this project, one where Indigenous women are taking control of the message.

Caroline Monnet, one of the participating artists, says she always goes past billboards when visiting her mother's home community in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg north of Ottawa, signs put up after local women disappeared. "To be taking space as Indigenous women was important to me," says Monnet — "to use these billboards to take space for Indigenous women and showcase some positivity of what is happening countrywide."

Caroline Monnet. Deluxe, 2018. Created specifically for the Resilience Project, the geometric background is inspired by a traditional pattern passed down by her mother in law. What's behind the "Deluxe" message, though? "I think it's kind of a bit cheeky," says the artist, who's riffing on ad speak ("like the McDonald Deluxe"), while flipping the narrative for Indigenous women. "Women, Indigenous women, are still the most marginalized group in our society today," says Monnet, "so the idea of bringing back Indigenous women to first class was a little bit of the idea here." (Resilience Project)

'Our voices, our stories'

Adams's artwork seizes on the same powerful theme — changing the narrative. In 2014, she started her ongoing Perception series, portraits of local folks from Winnipeg's Indigenous community that are presented in contrasting diptych: on the left, faces are labelled with stereotypes and/or racist slurs; on the right, the copy offers the complex, and positive, reality. The series was postered all over the city in 2015.

KC Adams. Perception Leona Star, 2014. (Resilience Project)

Says Adams: "I think it's the same with everyone who's participating in this project: we want to change the way people see us. We want our voices heard. Not from the way history has painted us, but the way we see ourselves."

"We're changing the dialogue. We're changing the stereotypes. We are sharing our voices and our stories in our way."

Head to the project's website for a map of the exhibition, or search individual artist names for a complete ist of where their work will be featured.

Check out some of the artwork appearing in Reslience.

Christi Belcourt. This Painting is a Mirror, 2012. (Resilience Project)
Dana Claxton. Baby Girlz Gotta Mustang (Edition of 4, 2 artist’s proofs), 2008. (Resilience Project)
Annie Pootoogook. Cape Dorset Freezer, 2005. (Resilience Project)
Marianne Nicolson. The Sun is Setting on the British Empire, 2017. (Resilience Project)
Dayna Danger. Big'Uns – Adrienne, 2017. (Resilience Project)
Joane Cardinal-Schubert. Moonlight Sonata, 1988. (Resilience Project)
Rosalie Favell. I awoke to find my spirit had returned, 1999. (Resilience Project)
Maria Hupfield. Waaschign, 2017. (Resilience Project)
Pitaloosie Saila. Strange Ladies, 2006. (Resilience Project)
Heather Campbell. Nuliajuk in Mourning, 2017. (Resilience Project)
Ursula Johnson. Between My Body and Their Words, 2017. (Resilience Project)
Jeneen Frei Njootli. White Swan, 2013. (Resilience Project)
Sherry Farrell Racette. Ancestral Women Taking Back Their Dresses, 1990. (Resilience Project)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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