The REDress Project and between us at Brandeis
Two recent exhibits curated by Toni Shapiro-Phim
This fall, people crossing the Brandeis campus encountered empty red dresses mounted in outdoor spaces. All were a part of The REDress Project, an installation of empty red dresses – often in public spaces, sometimes in galleries – that calls attention to the horrific levels of violence against Indigenous women and girls across North America. The absence of bodies in the dresses alludes to the presence that has been denied these women and their families and communities, and, indeed, all of us, into the future.
Last spring, the Women’s Studies Research Center invited Toni Shapiro-Phim, Assistant Director of the Ethics Center’s Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts and Chair of the Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST) program, to curate an exhibition in the Kniznick Gallery for late 2021. Professor Shapiro-Phim proposed working with Canadian Indigenous artist Jaime Black, of Anishinaabe and Finnish descent, whose REDress Project she had admired for years.
Shapiro-Phim had previously introduced students to the REDress Project in several classes. Each time, those who had been educated in U.S. high schools had been aghast that they had no idea about this violence. All students were moved and compelled to find out more.
A Student-designed Installation
So, this past fall, the “Introduction to CAST” (CAST 150b) students designed and put in place a public installation of dresses on the Brandeis campus, and further amplified Jaime Black’s art and message by contributing to between us, an exhibition of Black’s other work (poems, photographs, video) inside the Kniznick Gallery. The exhibition, incorporating both an absence and a presence of bodies, highlights the potency of Indigenous women’s relationship with the land.
In teams, students created publicity, a postcard for gallery visitors, a corner display of their own aesthetic responses to the context of Jaime Black’s work, a short video sharing their behind-the-scenes preparation, and a website specifically for the Brandeis exhibition with educational materials about North American Indigenous communities, ways to take action in the face of racialized and gendered violence, and resources for support. One team designed and led the class in rituals to honor the exhibition of gorgeous Black art by Marla McLeod that was in the Kniznick Gallery before Jaime Black’s, and to welcome Black’s work, in particular, the dresses.
On one particular wall in the gallery. Their handprints, now a part of the exhibition, also confirm a commitment to action.
“Students have since volunteered to educate others,” said Professor Shapiro-Phim, “by bringing friends and family members to the gallery, by sharing online educational resources, and by pointing people to relevant pieces of legislation such as those being debated in the Massachusetts and other state legislatures, for example.”
There were many additional opportunities for the Brandeis community to engage with the context of Black’s art, including these online events:
- A presentation by Dr. Fannie LaFontaine, a lawyer and scholar who introduced the concept of cultural genocide as it relates to Indigenous communities in Canada;
- A talk by Claudia Fox Tree (Arawak/Yurumein), an educator and affiliate of the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, who spoke about anti- racism from an Indigenous perspective;
- and A Waltham Public Library book club discussion, facilitated by Dr. Polly Walker (of Cherokee descent), a scholar of peace and conflict studies, focused on The Round House by acclaimed Native American author Louise Erdrich.