Billboard project weaves Indigenous art into your daily commute

Teresa Marshall, a Mi'kmaw artist from Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, is one of 50 Indigenous women participating in a national art exhibit on roadside billboards.

Mi'kmaw artist from Nova Scotia one of 50 Indigenous women participating coast-to-coast

Teresa Marshall gazes up at a billboard on Windmill Road in Dartmouth, N.S.. It's one of three in the province displaying artwork by 50 Indigenous women from across the country. (Nina Corfu/CBC)

"I hope it doesn't cause any accidents."

That's what Mi'kmaw artist Teresa Marshall says as she gazes up at a roadside billboard displaying a Mohawk woman in a bright red T-shirt, posing playfully on the trunk of a vintage car.

Interspersed between ads for car dealerships and restaurants, this is one of 50 contemporary artworks by Indigenous women currently on display on billboards across the country as part of a larger project called Resilience, The National Billboard Exhibition Project.

The images started circulating on three billboards in Nova Scotia this week — at Windmill Road in Dartmouth, Kempt Road in Halifax and Bell Boulevard in Enfield.

The Rebel by Shelley Niro of the Bay of Quinte Mohawk. (Resilience Project)

For Marshall, who grew up on Millbrook First Nation near Truro, the exhibition presents an opportunity to show the public "how amazing — really amazing — Indigenous women are" in an era when news stories about Indigenous women are often tinged with sadness.

Many of the artists involved are making political statements with their pieces — about their identity, treaty rights and relationship to the land.

Others, like Marshall, just want to give commuters a "big shot of happiness" as they drive by.

Marshall's contribution to the project is an acrylic painting called Mi'kmaq Universe, which shows petroglyphs cradled within brightly coloured circles of porcupine quills.

She said it feels good to be part of this project, in collaboration with so many other Indigenous artists. "I'm so proud to be one of the sisters," Marshall said.

Marshall's contribution to the project is an acrylic painting called Mi'kmaq Universe. (Resilience Project)

Although she said she doesn't know many of the new and emerging artists personally, she feels a connection to their work.

Others, like Shelley Niro of the Bay of Quinte Mohawk, are artists whose work Marshall said she has admired for years.

Ursula Johnson from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton is the other Nova Scotian involved with the project. 

Many of the artists involved are making political statements with their pieces, others just want to give commuters a reason to smile. (Nina Corfu/CBC)

The underlying message that ties them all together is right there in the title of the project, Marshall said.

Resilience means "standing your ground — staying steady and strong — despite past damages," Marshall said. "It's like you can't blow us down in the wind."

The official introduction to the exhibition, on the project website, explains that it is a "creative response" to a specific call to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report examining residential schools.

In her introductory essay, curator Lee-Ann Martin explains the participating artists "resist and oppose ongoing injustices against Indigenous individuals and nations."

With files from the CBC's Information Morning.