Art for Life’s Sake: Reflecting Upon Indigenous Services’ Stained-Glass Art Making Workshop

On Thursday, November 29, I attended a Stained-Glass Art Making Workshop at the Visual Arts Centre as part of the Indigenous Services’ Indigenous Awareness Week. This workshop involved Indigenous teachers guiding participants through the process of making a small red dress out of stained-glass in remembrance of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The teacher under whom I worked was Amanda Myers, a visual arts student and Indigenous Services’ Community Enhancement Coordinator, who is of mixed Anishinaabe and Métis blood. She taught me how to trace the provided red dress design, carve it out on stained glass, grind its edges, and outline it with a thin border of copper tape. When I began this workshop, I was focused more on the artistic skills that it taught than the reason for why it was organized in the first place. However, after learning more about MMIWG through my final project (Two Row Magazine has two pages dedicated to MMIWG and the REDress Project), I realized the significance of not only having red dresses displayed around campus but of having students make their own red dresses to keep and possibly display in other locations such as their homes. 

Throughout many public spaces, there is a lack of Indigenous presence and a prevalence of settler colonial presence. The lack of a fixed and visual Indigenous presence on Western’s campus was highlighted to me by Amanda herself during my group’s interview with her; she said,

“When I visit other universities in other campuses, I’ll literally know where to go because I see something that looks Indigenous. I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s the medicine wheel.’ […] We don’t have that here, and that’s really unfortunate because it’s a really big campus. So when you ask our students, you know—they want something where they can take their graduation photos that represents them here on this land, and that’s not a part of this campus yet.”

A fundamental part of settler colonialism is the physical and conceptual displacement of Indigenous peoples (Lowman and Barker 27). This causes settler societies to feel justified in moving into the space of Indigenous communities, believing those communities to no longer be present and that space to therefore be open (Lowman and Barker 27). Upon moving into this space, settler societies choose not only to occupy it but transform its landscape, shaping it in a way that highlights its settler colonial presence (Lowman and Barker 32).

Evident in Amanda’s statement is that Western’s campus is not exempt from this process of settler colonialism which suppresses Indigenous representation. The ubiquitous display of red dresses is thus particularly significant because it disrupts public and dominantly settler colonial spaces. Considering this, the REDress Project qualifies as what Janett Martineau defines as a decolonizing form of art, which is art that has a “decolonizing potentiality… to disrupt and interrogate forms of settler colonialism and advance the project of insurgence and Indigenous-nation building” (qtd. in Simpson 198). The REDress Project necessitates the re-occupation of dominantly settler colonial spaces by an Indigenous presence, and it critiques settler colonial authority by being a reminder of the systemic injustice with which that authority has dealt Indigenous peoples. In the everyday life of a settler society that too often overlooks or dismisses Indigenous-related issues such as MMIWG, the REDress Project situates itself in predominantly settler colonial spaces not only to counteract this overlooking and dismissing but also to emphasize the existence of an Indigenous presence in such spaces. 

It was in reflecting upon my initial focus on the stained-glass art making rather than the significance of the red dresses that I realized my perspective of ‘art for art’s sake’ in this situation. I was focused on the aesthetics of art rather than its message and on the art’s skill-based significance to me rather than its significance to society as a whole. It was not until I saw the red dress in its finished art form that I understood how the workshop worked to create art that was ‘art for life’s sake’. In his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Justice refers to Cherokee-Appalachian poet Marilou Aurakta’s explanation of this art: art for life’s sake, in this case, is a kind of art that strives to articulate Indigenous presence and engage with the larger world beyond that of the individual artist (21). It is evident through the aforementioned ways in which the red dresses both represent Indigenous presence in largely settler colonial spaces and memorialize MMIWG that their value as an art installation transcends mere aesthetics and artistic technique.

The REDress Project, in its necessary ubiquity of having red dresses not only spread throughout a geographical area but, through the workshop, in personal spaces as well, is a statement about the persistence of Indigenous communities. Stories of settler societies depict Indigenous peoples as peoples who have or should have vanished long ago, and Indigenous peoples are thereby all survivors in their refusal to vanish despite settler societies’ oppressive laws and practices (Justice 5). In response to the loss and disappearance of so many Indigenous women and girls, the REDress project visibly preserves the presence of MMIWG: each dress represents an Indigenous woman/girl who Indigenous communities refuse to let disappear under settler societies’ desire to overlook and dismiss. 

By creating a red dress of my own in this workshop, I felt as if I were taking part in the REDress Project’s work to remember and bring awareness to the issue of MMIWG. Although the impact of my handmade red dress is limited to my personal space rather than that of the larger society, as is contrarily the case with the REDress Project, I found significance in my making of it in collaboration with an Indigenous teacher.  The workshop’s structure of having Indigenous artists be teachers with whom participants could work one-on-one embodied for me the aspect of allyship that focuses on coming to a relationship with Indigenous peoples on Indigenous peoples’ terms.

For me, the workshop epitomized the allyship process wherein allies base their actions on the wants of Indigenous peoples as they articulate them (Indigenous Services did this by encouraging students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to participate in the making of red dresses) and are not afraid to ask questions while doing so. In doing this, there is an untying of the canoe depicted in the Haudenosaunee Two Row Wampum. In this Two Row Wampum, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are seen traversing the river of life together, side by side, with the former in a canoe and the latter in a ship (Garneau 35). The act of untying the canoe, as described by Leanne Simpson, is grounded on Indigenous peoples’ “living in [their] bodies as political orders… aligning oneself and one’s life in the present with the visions of an Indigenous future that are radically decoupled from the domination of colonialism and where Indigenous freedom is centered” (Simpson 192).

Applying this to non-Indigenous people, participation in activities such as the workshop wherein there is possibility of open communication with and learning from Indigenous peoples is also a way of untying the non-Indigenous ship. In this participation, one engages in an active embodiment of the harmonious Indigenous/non-Indigenous coexistence portrayed in the Two Row Wampum, and this engagement is “to not just think about our canoes or write about our canoes but to actually untie them, get in, and begin the voyage” (Simpson 193). Relating to this idea of ‘beginning the voyage’, the Stained-Glass Art Making Workshop gave non-Indigenous students such as myself the opportunity to learn about and engage with the national issue of MMIWG on a personal and experiential level. It was impactful in its ability to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities on campus, allowing for a collective awareness-spreading and remembrance guided by Indigenous teachers. 

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