London

How photography has empowered local Indigenous women, crushing stereotypes

Five woman have shared compelling journeys through 16 photographs hung at the downtown library location until Jan. 30.

Women are sharing their stories through photography at the London Public Library

Five woman have shared compelling journeys through 16 photographs hung at the downtown library location until Jan. 30. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

52-year-old Darlene Donati says she grew up in a time where no one asked questions — afraid to face either a blank stare or a difficult truth.

The Indigenous woman who now calls London home was born in British Columbia, where she was either abandoned or scooped as a baby from her biological family and placed in an adoptive white home. Her identity crisis began shortly after.

Darlene Donati, right, with her adoptive mother. Donati is part of the We Are Still Here Standing Strong exhibition. (Submitted by Darlene Donati)

"I lost a lot including my identity, my culture. I never knew anything about anything," she said. "I was brought up white and to look in the mirror and I'm actually Native. It was confusing. It was hard."

She can't tell you much about her identity including her family, birth name, First Nation and the circumstances of her adoption. But what she chooses to share through art is her experiences with sexual abuse from her brother, domestic abuse from her partner and the emotionally draining journey to finding herself.

"I have a voice now," said Donati, who has four creative photographs on display at the London Public Library.

"The hardest thing for me as a native woman is trying to get away from stereotypes. We are more than how we are portrayed. We can succeed and we can reach the sky."

Creative healing

Darlene Donati photographed local graffiti that displayed the word 'No' to signify her response to sexual approaches from family members. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Counsellor Summer Thorp says the We Are Still Here Standing Strong exhibit part of the Positive Voice+ program at Nokee Kwe — a career centre tailored toward Indigenous people — has armed women with the power of expression through photography.

Five women have shared their compelling journeys through 16 photographs that will be on exhibit at the downtown library location until Jan. 30.

"The women have this desire to create and in some cases they haven't had the space to do that. In some cases, life has taken all of their energy and creative force out of them and they need a safe space to be able to create something that's uniquely theirs," said Thorp.

Women also have the opportunity to develop marketable skills that they could put on a resume or transform into further education.

"In some cases these women are incredibly isolated and they don't have that connection to the community and they feel like no one is listening to them," she said. "It really validates the investment that they've made in their work."

Overcoming obstacles

52-year-old Darlene Donati says she grew up in a time where no one asked questions — she displayed her experiences through photographs at the London Public Library. (Submitted by Summer Thorp)

Donati, a mother of two and grandmother to five, lives on her own in her London home.  She has aspirations to become a social worker for Indigenous youth or move to British Columbia to learn about her identity from her biological extended family.

She's stayed in touch with members of her family through social platforms. Although she never got the chance to meet her late biological mother, she rekindled her relationship with her father three years ago.

"I still feel lost. I say that because culture is such a strong root and especially being around family," she said.

"I need to get answers. I need to know who I am. I need to be able to tell my children who can tell their children what our beliefs are who we are and what we should stand for."

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