Jaime Black

Empty Red Dresses, Full Hearts: Jamie Black Creates Public Art with Impact

“I've been an artist at heart since the day I could hold a pencil,” shares Jamie Black, a Manitoba-based Metis, Anishnaabe, Cree and European visual artist. She’s been working on the Red Dress Project and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls for many years. The work has been inspired by the colonial violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls and some of the violent situations her family members have been through. It was also inspired by The Book of Jessica, a book written by Maria Campbell which had a cover that featured an empty red dress.

"I really wanted to make an impact and hopefully make change, and make safer spaces for women through my art practice"

The project started with a first installation of red dresses, six or seven purchased from a thrift store hung in public spaces. From there, Black was invited to display them in a small gallery and the project grew until the University of Winnipeg was collecting over 100 dresses and displaying them on campus. The project has been to over 100 different locations in Canada over twelve years and now community members create their own installations and the symbol has appeared in photographs, paintings, fashion design. “In so many different ways this work has grown through the creativity of how other artists are seeing it as well,” Black reflects.

One way the project makes a difference is an expression of solidarity. “It can help families feel like they're not completely alone. Families are facing such discrimination from just the general public society, but also from the police force, who's supposed to be helping with these things. Putting up a red dress just shows that they're not alone in this struggle, that we're standing beside them and in the ways that we can and that we're open to listening and helping,” Black explains. 

While Black’s work supports families, her own family was not initially excited about her pursuing a career as an artist, concerned about how viable it would be. She persevered and kept following the path. Before pursuing her art full time, she got a teaching degree and an English degree from the University of Manitoba. She experimented and travelled until her grandfather passed away and she came back to who she was to carry his spirit and story forward. “It was around that time that I actually came up with the red dress project and decided that in a very certain way that this is what I am going to do, I'm going to use my gifts to help others, basically. I think it was that decision that just really pushed everything forward after that,” she recalls. 

The financial uncertainty of artistic life remains a challenge, though she grew up with enough privilege to take the risk, having a family to support her in an emergency. As a single parent, she’s always juggling to make things work so she can do her heart work. “I just feel like I'm living my purpose, which is a really beautiful thing,” she beams. Black feels her artistic side comes from her Metis family, her grandfather and mother who were creative and brought things into being seemingly by magic. 

Illustration by Shaikara David

Art has been a way Black has opened herself up to the world, as someone who has been painfully shy. “It wasn't until I realized that if I was passionate about what I was talking about in front of people, I could talk for hours, and so once I started speaking around those things, I got the courage to overcome that fear,” she remembers. 

An elder taught her that people have a responsibility to share their gifts and that lesson changed her perspective, expanding the scope from her and her fears to something much bigger.  She learned about the ripple effect of sharing gifts and daydreams about what life could be like if everyone could share their gifts every day. In inviting others to share their gifts in moving this work forward, it releases her from the heavy burden of doing it alone and strengthens the project as a whole. 

The Red Dress Project installations are travelling across the US, often on university campuses and alongside this work, Black is reflecting on ways Indigenous women can and do stand together in their power against injustice. “I'm thinking about in my practice now, where are we healing? How are we healing each other? How are we present rather than absent?” she muses. She recalls hearing about women as Memory Keepers and that stuck with her. “That's how it feels. We're going back in the past and we're picking up pieces and we're trying to put back together a vision for the future based on those values and that sense of connection and balance we used to have as a community,” she continues. As she goes about the work, she is compelled to share about healing and building towards Indigenous futures. 

"We are not our trauma. That does not define who we are. That's not it."

Thinking of youth leaving their home community to pursue work or school, Black says, “I always have so much empathy for how difficult that would be to leave your community and leave all your contacts to get an education.” As a lover of travel and taker of risks, Black moved away to Thailand for four months in her early twenties. For those less excited about jumping in with both feet on their own, Black recommends exchange programs and travelling in groups where you can help each other out and see more places for sometimes less money and with less risk. 

During the pandemic, Black began to appreciate the world closer to home. She started slowing down and reconnecting to home and the things near her home community. “I think reconnecting with everything that's close to us can be almost like travelling if we really get into those learnings and teachings. There's just so much there's so much there that’s endlessly interesting,” she ponders. 

As an artist at heart since the day she could hold a pencil, Jamie Black is sharing her gifts with the world and encouraging others to do the same. Raising awareness of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls with the Red Dress Project, she’s creating impact and safer spaces through her art practice. Making change while pursuing her dream to live as a full-time artist, she’s a single mom with a vision of community and a story to tell. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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  • Date
    April 18, 2024
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